Judge Job Description: What You'll Do

Judges fill a critical role in municipal, state, and federal justice systems. They oversee trials and hearings and decide some cases. Becoming a judge takes years of education and experience. Judgeships do not require any particular undergraduate degree. However, earning a criminal justice degree can help you understand the basics of the criminal justice system and prepare you for a successful career in the legal field.

This guide provides information for students considering a career as a judge, including judge job descriptions, career expectations, and employment prospects. The sections below also cover what it takes to become a judge, including important skills and educational requirements.

What Does a Judge Do?

Judges may work for local governments, state governments, or the federal government. While judges generally preside over cases, hear arguments, and make decisions, the responsibilities of a judge depend largely on the type of court in which they work.

Municipal court judges, who work in city judicial systems, spend the majority of their time presiding over cases involving traffic violations and misdemeanors. They also devote time to pretrial hearings and small-claims cases.

In federal courts of appeals, judge job duties include assessing the decisions of lower courts. They review other judges' opinions and lawyers' arguments to determine whether decisions were correct.

While judges generally preside over cases, hear arguments, and make decisions, the responsibilities of a judge depend largely on the type of court in which they work.

Federal district court judges hear cases related to federal offenses, while family court judges make decisions on issues such as child abuse, paternity, and domestic violence. Administrative law judges work for government agencies, rather than for court systems.

Depending on where they work, judges can have different job titles, such as justice of the peace or magistrate. Overall, judges work primarily in courtrooms. They may need to sit for long hours, hearing many cases in a single day. Judges also work from an office, where they review case materials and draft opinions.

Judge responsibilities include presiding over hearings and making sure that all parties involved follow established rules and protocols. Judges instruct the defense, prosection, and jury, and they oversee the legal process as a whole. During trials, judges decide what evidence may be admitted, hear motions from attorneys, and maintain order in the courtroom.

In addition to monitoring courtroom proceedings, judges in criminal cases may approve search and arrest warrants, set bail, and order that the accused be held in jail until trial. During pretrial hearings, judges listen to arguments and decide whether a case should go to trial.

Judges also consider arguments, apply appropriate laws and precedents, and render decisions. In criminal cases, judges may decide to punish the defendant with prison time, a fine, or community service. Judges presiding over civil cases can order one party to compensate the other.

What Are the Qualities a Judge Should Have?

Written Communication Skills

Judges often deliver written decisions and recommendations. They must be able to write clearly so that all parties involved in a case fully understand the outcome.

Critical Thinking Skills

Judges need strong critical-thinking and analytical skills to evaluate all evidence and testimonies to reach a sound decision.

Impartiality

Judges must be completely fair and balanced. They must only consider the facts and must not allow their personal opinions to influence their decisions.

Oral Communication Skills

Judges need to clearly convey their thoughts to manage a courtroom. They must also listen closely to witnesses and attorneys.

Decision-Making Skills

One of a judge's main duties is rendering decisions on difficult issues. They must consider the facts and appropriate laws to quickly reach a decision.

What Education Is Required to Become a Judge?

Judge positions do not require any particular bachelor's degree, but legal expertise and knowledge can help judges succeed in their careers. Criminal justice bachelor's programs often examine essential legal theories and landmark court decisions, along with topics in law enforcement and criminology.

Bachelor

A bachelor's degree in criminal justice prepares graduates for jobs in policing, corrections, and forensics, but the degree can also prove useful for aspiring judges. Criminal justice programs cover the basics of the legal system and can be a stepping stone toward a career as a judge. Only after earning a bachelor's degree can individuals attend law school, pass the bar, and become an attorney.

Judges gain legal knowledge during law school and their work as attorneys; however, criminal justice bachelor's programs deliver essential knowledge that can jump start a career in the field. For example, courses in criminal law explore various criminal acts and common legal defenses. Corrections coursework teaches students about probation, parole, the prison experience, and the U.S. correctional system.

Bachelor's in criminal justice degrees typically require approximately 120 credits and take four years to complete.

Juris Doctor

After earning a bachelor's degree, aspiring judges must attend law school and earn a juris doctor (JD). A JD qualifies the holder to take the bar exam and become a licensed lawyer. Judges normally have a law degree along with several years of experience as an attorney; however, not all law degree holders can become judges. Judges must be elected or appointed to their position.

In law school, aspiring lawyers explore key legal fields including constitutional law, contracts, torts, property law, and criminal law. Additionally, students learn about courtroom procedures and build professional skills in legal writing, legal research, and oral argumentation. Law students also take a class on professional ethics. Upper-division work covers specialized topics such as corporate law, tax law, and intellectual property law.

Students typically spend three years completing their JD.

Explore other advanced degrees in criminal justice and legal studies

Where are Judges Employed?

Projections Central predicts judge jobs to increase 5.6% from 2016-2026. The table below shows the states with the highest numbers of employed judges as of May 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Top States for Judge Careers
State Number Employed
New York 3,170
Ohio 2,510
California 1,610
Georgia 1,340
Illinois 1,070
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2018
Top Cities and Metropolitan Areas for Judge Careers
Metropolitan Area Number Employed
New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA 1,600
Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI 780
Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell, GA 600
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA 500
Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA 500
Cleveland-Elyria, OH 470
Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX 470
Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD 460
Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL 450
Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ 440
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2018

Want to Learn More About Judge Jobs?

Explore Judge Salary Information

According to the BLS, judges earn a median annual wage of more than $133,000. Follow the link below to further explore judge salaries.

Learn more about judge salaries

Explore More Careers in Criminal Justice

If a career as a judge does not sound right for you, consider learning about other criminal justice-related careers through the links below.

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