How to become a judge
It takes more than education and an interest in the law to become a judge. Here's what you need to know.
Do you have a passion for helping your community, an interest in the well-being of society and a respect for justice and the law? If so, serving as a judge may be a natural fit. If you're up to handling the trials and tests that come with practicing law, check out these requirements for becoming a judge and see if you have what it takes to hear "The Honorable" before your name.
Roles and responsibilities
There are many different types of judges, and depending on the role a judge holds, the responsibilities may differ*:
- Judges, magistrate judges and magistrates preside over trials or hearings. They typically work in local, state and federal courts.
- In local and state court systems, judges have a variety of titles, such as municipal court judge, county court judge, magistrate and justice of the peace. Traffic violations, misdemeanors, small-claims cases and pretrial hearings make up the bulk of these judges' work.
- In federal and state court systems, general trial court judges have authority over any case in their system. Appellate court judges rule on a small number of cases by reviewing decisions of the lower courts and lawyers' written and oral arguments.
- Hearing officers, also known as administrative law judges or adjudicators, usually work for government agencies. They decide many issues, such as if a person is eligible for worker's compensation benefits or if employment discrimination occurred.
Education and work experience
For most jobs as a local, state 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.
In some states, administrative law judges and other hearing officials do not have to be lawyers. However, federal administrative law judges must be lawyers and must pass a competitive exam from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.
Most judges gain skills through years of experience as practicing lawyers. About 40 states allow those who are not lawyers to hold limited-jurisdiction judgeships, but opportunities are better for those with law experience.
Training and licenses
Some training and licenses are required in order to serve as a judge. All states have some type of orientation for newly elected or appointed judges. The Federal Judicial Center, American Bar Association, National Judicial College and National Center for State Courts provide judicial education and training for judges and other judicial branch personnel.
More than half of all states, as well as Puerto Rico, require judges to take continuing education courses while serving on the bench. General and continuing education courses usually last from a few days to three weeks.
Judges who are lawyers already hold a license. Federal administrative law judges must be licensed to practice law.
The hiring process
Most judges and magistrates must be either appointed or elected, a procedure that often takes political support. Many local and state judges are appointed to serve fixed renewable terms, ranging from four to 14 years. A few judges, such as appellate court judges, are appointed for life. Judicial nominating commissions screen candidates for judgeships in many states and for some federal judgeships. Some local and state judges are elected to a specific term, commonly four years.
It takes more than education and an interest in the law to become a judge. Along with being appointed or elected to the position, judges should possess certain qualities that will help them serve fairly and honorably:
- Critical-reasoning skills. Judges must apply rules of law. They can't let their own personal assumptions interfere with the proceedings.
- Decision-making skills. Judges must be able to weigh the facts, apply the law or rules and make quick decisions.
- Listening skills. Judges must pay close attention to what is being said in order to evaluate information.
- Reading comprehension. Judges must be able to evaluate and distinguish important facts from large amounts of complex information.
- Writing skills. Judges write recommendations or decisions on appeals or disputes. They must be able to write their decisions clearly so that all sides understand the decision.
*Job descriptions; education, training and experience requirements; and important qualities from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.