Judges apply the law to court cases and oversee the legal process in courts. They also resolve administrative disputes and facilitate negotiations between opposing parties. Most judges are employed in the various levels of government. Most work in courts, and the majority work full time.
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Judges typically do the following:
Judges commonly preside over trials or hearings of cases regarding nearly every aspect of society, from individual traffic offenses to issues concerning the rights of large corporations. They listen to arguments and determine whether the evidence presented deserves a trial. In criminal cases, they may decide that people charged with crimes should be held in jail until the trial, or they may set conditions for their release. They also approve search and arrest warrants.
Judges interpret the law to determine how a trial will proceed, which is particularly important when unusual circumstances arise for which standard procedures have not been established. They ensure that hearings and trials are conducted fairly and the legal rights of all involved parties are protected. In trials in which juries are selected to decide the case, judges instruct jurors on applicable laws and direct them to consider the facts from the evidence. For other trials, judges decide the case.
A judge who determines guilt in criminal cases may impose a sentence or penalty on the guilty party. In civil cases, the judge may award relief, such as compensation for damages, to the parties who win the lawsuit. Some judges, such as appellate court judges, review decisions and records made by lower courts, and make decisions based on lawyers’ written and oral arguments.
Judges use various forms of technology, such as electronic databases and software, to manage cases and prepare for trials. In some cases, they also may manage the court’s administrative and clerical staff.
Judges are often required to have a law degree and work experience as a lawyer. Additionally, most judges must be either appointed or elected into judge positions, a procedure that often takes political support. Many judges are appointed to serve fixed renewable terms, ranging from four years to 14 years. A few judges, such as appellate court judges, are appointed for life. Judicial nominating commissions screen candidates for judgeships in many local jurisdictions and for some federal judgeships. Some judges are elected to a specific term, commonly four years.
For most jobs as a local or federal judge, a law degree is necessary. Getting a law degree usually takes seven years of full-time study after high school—four years of undergraduate study, followed by three years of law school. Law degree programs include courses such as constitutional law, contracts, property law, civil procedure, and legal writing.
Most judges get their skills through years of experience as practicing lawyers. All jurisdictions have some type of orientation for newly elected or appointed judges.
Judges do most of their work in offices and courtrooms. Their jobs can be demanding because they must sit in the same position in the court or hearing room for long periods and give undivided attention to the process.
The median annual wage of judges was $91,880 in May 2010. (The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less.) The lowest 10% earned less than $35,400, and the top 10% earned more than $164,510.