How to become a judge
Judges have long been perceived as official state representatives who, based on a country’s laws and judiciary system principles, decide the outcome and resolution of legal trials.
The role of a judge is to analyze and settle various legal disputes after considering witness statements and the evidence gathered by lawyers, attorneys, and prosecutors. Sometimes a single judge can preside over court procedures, or they can be part of a larger panel of judges.
Although this is an exciting career that can bring high social status and remuneration, becoming a judge takes significant commitment. The youngest judge elected in the United States was 24, yet becoming a judge typically entails up to 9 years of study and practice. Note also, that a would-be judge must first become a lawyer.
The responsibilities of a judge
In addition to the primary role of resolving legal disputes, judges hold authority and can exert governmental power. It is vital they remain unbiased to guarantee the universal right to a fair trial.
Duties of a judge can include:
- overseeing and conducting hearings, trials, and legal procedures
- acting as an impartial arbiter in a case
- informing defendants and lawyers of their rights
- questioning witnesses and hearing their testimonies
- making informed decisions, by choosing the questions, depositions, and arguments that may be admissible playing an active role in various courts, often within a panel of judges
Skills and qualities of talented judges
Judges require vast law experience to help ensure that court proceedings are just and well organized. Other important skills and attributes include:
Integrity and self-control
A judge needs to act and oversee trials without fear or favor, showing total integrity and independence and adhering to a strict code of conduct.
Good judges are fair, open-minded, and able to use their reasoning to discern the truth and act accordingly.
Accurate decision-making abilities
Judges need to use their decision-making abilities to settle all sorts of disputes. They require excellent problem-solving skills, and the ability to use their intuition when the evidence seems unclear.
A good judge listens actively and understands various perspectives. This is essential to correctly evaluate depositions and interrogate witnesses.
Besides impartiality, judges also need courtesy, punctuality, patience, and compassion.
A step-by-step guide to becoming a judge
Becoming a judge takes patience, time, and dedication. Typically, the process takes up to 9 years, although it is not uncommon for it to take more than a decade.
The first step to becoming a judge is training to become a lawyer. Law school applicants do not require an undergraduate degree in a particular field. There are numerous majors in related domains that can help to build know-how and law awareness—psychology, history, philosophy, to name just a few.
Before selecting a program or institution, consider the type of lawyer you might like to become. Examples of different lawyers include:
- Intellectual property lawyer
- Criminal lawyer
- Human rights lawyer
- Employment and labor lawyer
- Immigration lawyer
- Corporate and business lawyer
- Tax lawyer
- Malpractice lawyer
When deciding on a school, remember to check that its programs are accredited. Other factors to consider include the school’s location, duration of studies, and the courses on offer. There are no fully online programs. Hybrid options are available, which combine on-campus practice and online courses.
How to earn a juris doctor degree
There is no bachelor’s degree in law, therefore, the most important professional diploma for U.S. students is the Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree. This graduate program has remained almost unchanged for nearly 150 years. Students do not usually have to submit a final dissertation, although contributing to various papers and research studies is often a requirement.
A full-time law student can earn their J.D. in about 3 years.
A full-time law student can earn their J.D. in about 3 years. During this time, they study a set of mandatory topics, commonly including constitutional law, civil procedure, penal code, and restatement of property. Other courses depend on the type of lawyer the student wants to become.
Upon completion of the J.D., students are eligible to take the bar exam, a mandatory step before becoming a lawyer.
The bar exam at a glance
Officially named the uniform bar examination (UBE), this assessment takes place over 2 days and contains 3 standardized sections:
- The multistate bar examination (MBE) is a 200-question test that evaluates a candidate’s knowledge in 7 crucial law areas. These include: rules of civil procedure, constitutional law, federal rules of evidence, torts, real property, or contracts.
- The multistate essay examination (MEE) contains 6 questions. For each of these, candidates are asked to write a short essay in less than 30 minutes. The MEE covers additional aspects to the MBE, such as conflicts of law, business and commercial law, and estate law.
- The multistate performance test (MPT) assesses a candidate’s ability to understand and apply substantive law in an everyday legal task. It typically consists of 2 items that take 90 minutes to complete.
Start practicing law to become a judge
Licensed lawyers are not eligible to become judges until they have completed the requisite work experience. It is important to develop competencies in various law areas, ranging from bankruptcy law, to business, or family law. To gain this experience, most choose to serve either as a public defender or prosecutor.
Whilst participating in trials and the courts, lawyers can meet some of the decision-makers responsible for appointing future judges or compiling shortlists of potential candidates. They gain access to the legal circle and can develop their professional network.
Three ways to earn a judgeship
A lawyer needs to practice for at least 2-3 years before exploring the possibility of becoming a judge. The position is highly sought after, so they face tough competition from peers. Most federal judges are appointed for life, thus the highest skillset is required to win the role.
There are 3 main pathways to becoming a judge:
The most straightforward method to earn a local judge seat is to run in regional elections. Judicial selection methods vary depending on the state. Citizens can elect judges in either partisan or nonpartisan elections, based on the party affiliation and whether this is specified or not. There are also instances when state legislature selects local judges.
If an elected judge chooses to resign, retire, or is removed for misconduct, some states allow the governor to appoint a temporary replacement. This substitute serves until the next scheduled ballot. During this time, they have an excellent opportunity to prove their skills and professionalism, and often become the front-runner for the next round of elections.
The more critical a judicial seat, the higher the probability of it being directly appointed by an executive—whether this be a state governor or the President of the United States. Federal seat judges are appointed for life. The selection process is long, rigorous, and begins with an initial shortlist. Candidates are interviewed and participate in confirmation hearings organized by the federal legislative body.
Explore a federal system judge career
Simply put, federal judges serve in federal courts. Typically they are appointed for life, provided they demonstrate good behavior during their tenure. According to the third article of the U.S. Constitution, federal judges are nominated directly by the U.S. President and later confirmed by the Senate.
Established in 1869 through the judiciary act, the United States Supreme Court includes 9 justices, and is the highest court within the American federal judiciary system.
Becoming a federal judge takes time, perseverance, and commitment. The process begins with the president nominating individuals for particular judicial seats. The candidates then fill in questionnaires. Later these are reviewed by the judiciary committee within the U.S. senate, which oversees official hearings. It is the senate’s prerogative to confirm or reject nominations.
Established in 1869 through the judiciary act, the United States Supreme Court includes 9 justices, and is the highest court within the American federal judiciary system. For those who wish to pursue a career in the national judiciary system, here are some other courts to consider:
- S. Court of Appeals – 179 judgeships
- S. Court of International Trade – 9 judgeships
- S. District Court – 677 judgeships
- Federal Magistrate – 579 judgeships
- S. Bankruptcy Court – 350 judgeships
Judges in the state judicial system
The main difference between federal judges and those serving in a state’s judicial system is jurisdiction. State courts may not hear lawsuits against the U.S., or tackle cases involving federal laws. A state judge cannot be involved in trials that involve anti-trust violations, copyright, bankruptcy, or maritime issues, to name just a few.
Judges who serve in a trial court are the first to announce a decision, whereas those in the appeal courts review the decisions taken by trial courts, with a view to changing them.
Including trial and appeal courts, there are currently approximately 30,000 state judges in the U.S. Some states even have intermediate appellate courts for both civil and criminal cases. Judges who serve in a trial court are the first to announce a decision, whereas those in the appeal courts review the decisions taken by trial courts, with a view to changing them.
Trial courts with general jurisdiction—also called superior, district, or circuit courts—can hear a broader range of cases. Judges in this type of court can be appointed directly by the local governor or selected via general elections. There are 2 states–Virginia and North Carolina–where the legislature members nominate judges.
How long does a judge serve for?
Term lengths vary depending on the court level and the particularities of state legislation. In 3 states (New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island), judges are appointed for life. In other cases (New Jersey, for instance), a judge has an initial term, and if re-elected can serve until the age of 70.
In most states, judges serve for clearly defined terms, with a mandatory retirement age that varies from 65 to 75. Usually, the first term for a judge serving in the state judicial system tends to be shorter (1 to 3 years), while subsequent terms range from 4 to 15 years.
How much does a judge earn?
This is a position of great responsibility with a significant workload—and the compensation reflects this.
Trial court and circuit judge salaries
Trial court judges earn an annual average base salary of $143,329. As with other professions: the higher an individual in the judicial hierarchy, the better their compensation. For example, in 2021, circuit judges earn an average annual salary of $231,800.
History trivia: the first female judges in the U.S.
Today, the American judiciary system is considered inclusive, with no constraints regarding gender or race. But things used to be significantly different, and there have been a couple of memorable milestones in the history of this profession.
- In 1870, Esther Morris was the first woman to be appointed as a justice of the peace, serving in South Pass City, Wyoming, for almost 9 months. Later she became involved in the women’s rights movement and served as vice president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.
- Genevieve R. Cline made history in 1928 as the first woman appointed to a federal court, earning an associate justice seat. She served until 1953, when she decided to retire.
- In 1932, Florence E. Allen became the first woman to be appointed as a judge to a federal appeals court, and the first female to serve on a state’s supreme court.
- Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was the first woman to be part of the U.S. Supreme Court. President Ronald Reagan appointed her in 1981. She had a long tenure, serving until 2006.
- Finally, Jasmine Twitty established a new record in 2015, becoming the youngest judge to be elected or appointed in the United States—she was just 25 years old.
Why participate in a judicial clerkship?
Now you have a better understanding of what it takes to become a judge, you may be wondering if there is a way to reach this goal more quickly.
Judicial clerkships count among the most prestigious employment opportunities for recent graduates.
A judicial clerkship could be the answer, as it grants access to a wide variety of trials and legal issues. Moreover, a clerk can hone their research skills and gain valuable insights into the mechanisms of the judicial process.
Judicial clerkships count among the most prestigious employment opportunities for recent graduates. They usually last for up to 2 years and are an excellent way to climb the judicial ranks.
Overseen by the National Center for State Courts, this is one of the most prominent organizations comprising judges only. The AJA aims to enhance the quality of the judicial process, while maintaining the current status and complete independence of judges.
This includes judges, lawyers, court administrators, students, researchers, and academics, interested in or working within the judiciary system. The ABA is also a valuable repository of law-related content for any professional who would like to benefit from career-enhancing opportunities.
Administered by the Federal Judiciary via the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, this is one of the most comprehensive and accessible resources for current or future judges. It includes a vast database, statistics, reports, rules and policies.