Judge/Magistrate  What They Do

Just the Facts

Judges, Magistrate Judges, and Magistrates Career Video

Insider Info

dotJudges preside over courts of law, interpret and enforce rules of procedure, adjudicate civil and criminal cases and administer justice.

dotBefore a case winds up in court, a judge will decide if it deserves to be there. When presiding over pre-trial hearings, they listen to allegations. Based on evidence presented, they decide if the case deserves to go to court.

In criminal cases, the judge decides if a defendant should be held in jail pending trial. In some cases, they set conditions for temporary release. In civil cases, the judge may put a restriction on the parties before the trial.

dotDuring a trial or hearing, it's the judge's duty to ensure that the case is being conducted fairly and that justice is administered. They make sure that all parties are following the proper rules and procedures. If an unusual circumstance arises that has no standard procedures, the judge is free to direct the proceedings based on their knowledge of the law.

"Judges have to know the law inside out," says Judge Moira Legere.

dotAt trial, the judge decides the outcome of the case when the law doesn't require a jury, or when the defendant decides to be tried without a jury.

However, when a jury decides the case, a judge can't rest easy. They must instruct the jury on the law, direct them on how to use the facts and evidence before them, and then hear their verdict.

Once a case has been decided, the judge sentences the convicted criminal or awards compensation of damages.

dotJudges also work in appeals courts -- where defendants who have been tried and convicted can seek a second opinion and may be able to get their decisions overturned.

Judges usually specialize in certain areas, such as civil, criminal or family law. They also work at different levels of government -- in local, state and federal courts.

dotJudges must have considerable experience as a lawyer or law professor before being appointed. In order to move into senior court positions, they must have a great deal of experience in that court.

dotMost judges work 40-hour weeks, but judges who have heavy caseloads may end up working much longer hours. Don't count on easy work hours before becoming a judge. Lawyers often work long hours, and the training in law school is rigorous.

A judge may spend many hours outside the courtroom preparing for trial, researching points of law and preparing rulings.

dotThe president, with the consent of the Senate, appoints federal judges for life. Federal administrative law judges are appointed by the various federal agencies -- they virtually have tenure for life.

About half of all state judges are appointed, while the remainder are elected in state elections.

dotMany state and local judges serve fixed renewable terms, ranging from four to six years for some trial court judgeships to as long as 14 years or life for other trial or appellate court judges.

Judicial nominating commissions, composed of members of the bar and the public, are used to screen candidates for judgeships in many states, as well as for some federal judgeships.

dotBeing successful at law requires dedication and a lot of hard work. "I suppose some people will go into it for the money, but you have to work hard to build up a good practice," says Legere.

Judges must be dedicated to listening to both sides of the story. "There's always two sides to a story and you have to listen to both," says Legere.

The job involves speaking to many people, so good communication skills are important. "Learn to read well, write clearly and succinctly, and learn to think critically," advises Judge Duane Benton in Missouri.

Just the Facts

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At a Glance

Preside over courts of law and administer justice

  • Judges can specialize in civil, criminal or family law
  • They work for federal, state and local courts
  • You'll need a law degree and lots of experience