Job Descriptions, Definitions Roles, Responsibility: Judges, Magistrates, and Other Judicial Workers

Judges, magistrates, and other judicial workers apply the law and oversee the legal process in courts according to local, State, and Federal statutes. They preside over cases concerning every aspect of society, from traffic offenses, to disputes over the management of professional sports, to issues concerning the rights of huge corporations, to questions over disconnecting life-support equipment connected to terminally ill persons. All judicial workers must ensure that trials and hearings are conducted fairly and that the court administers justice in a manner which safeguards the legal rights of all parties involved.

The most visible responsibility of judges is presiding over trials or hearings and listening as attorneys represent the parties present. Judges rule on the admissibility of evidence and the methods of conducting testimony, and they may be called upon to settle disputes between opposing attorneys. Also, they ensure that rules and procedures are followed, and if unusual circumstances arise for which standard procedures have not been established, they determine the manner in which the trial will proceed, on the basis of their interpretation of the law.

Judges often hold pretrial hearings for cases. They listen to allegations and determine whether the evidence presented merits a trial. In criminal cases, judges may decide that persons charged with crimes should be held in jail pending their trial, or they may set conditions for their release. In civil cases, they occasionally impose restrictions upon the parties until a trial is held.

In many trials, juries are selected to decide guilt or innocence in criminal cases or liability and compensation in civil cases. Judges instruct juries on applicable laws, direct them to deduce the facts from the evidence presented, and hear their verdict. When the law does not require a jury trial or when the parties waive their right to a jury, judges decide the cases. In such instances, in a criminal case, the judge determines guilt and imposes sentences; in civil cases, the judge awards relief—such as compensation for damages—to the parties to the lawsuit (called litigants). Judges also work outside the courtroom, “in chambers.” In these, their private offices, judges read documents on pleadings and motions, research legal issues, write opinions, and oversee the court’s operations. In some jurisdictions, judges also manage the courts’ administrative and clerical staff.

Judges’ duties vary according to the extent of their jurisdictions and powers. General trial court judges of the Federal and State court systems have jurisdiction over any case in their system. They usually try civil cases transcending the jurisdiction of lower courts and all cases involving felony offenses. Federal and State appellate court judges, although few in number, have the power to overrule decisions made by trial court or administrative law judges if they determine that legal errors were made in a case or if legal precedent does not support the judgment of the lower court. Appellate court judges rule on a small number of cases and rarely have direct contacts with litigants. Instead, they usually base their decisions on lower court records and lawyers’ written and oral arguments.

Many State court judges preside in courts whose jurisdiction is limited by law to certain types of cases. A variety of titles are assigned to these judges; among the most common are municipal court judge, county court judge, magistrate, and justice of the peace. Traffic violations, misdemeanors, small-claims cases, and pretrial hearings constitute the bulk of the work of State court judges, but some States allow them to handle cases involving domestic relations, probate, contracts, and other selected areas of the law.

Administrative law judges, sometimes called hearing officers or adjudicators, are employed by government agencies to make determinations for administrative agencies. These judges make decisions, for example, on a person’s eligibility for various Social Security or worker’s compensation benefits, on protection of the environment, on the enforcement of health and safety regulations, on employment discrimination, and on compliance with economic regulatory requirements.

Arbitration, mediation, and conciliation—called appropriate dispute resolution (ADR)—are alternative processes that can be used to settle disputes between parties. All ADR hearings are private and confidential, and the processes are less formal than a court trial. If no settlement is reached through ADR, any statements made during the proceedings are inadmissible as evidence in any subsequent litigation.

During arbitration, opposing parties submit their dispute to one or more impartial persons, called arbitrators, for a final and binding decision. Arbitrators usually are attorneys or businesspersons with expertise in a particular field. The parties identify beforehand the issues to be resolved by arbitration, the scope of the relief to be awarded, and many of the procedural aspects of the process. Few awards are reviewed by the courts, because the parties have agreed to be bound by the decision of their arbitrator, although in some cases, it is prearranged that the award will be only advisory. Mediation involves an attempt by the parties to resolve their dispute with the aid of a neutral third party and generally is used when the parties wish to preserve their relationship. A mediator may offer suggestions, but resolution of the dispute rests with the parties themselves. Mediation proceedings are also confidential and private. If the parties are unable to reach a settlement, they are free to pursue other options. The parties usually decide in advance how they will contribute to the cost of mediation.

Conciliation is similar to mediation. The conciliator’s role is to guide the parties to a settlement. The parties must decide in advance whether they will be bound by the conciliator’s recommendations; they generally share equally in the cost of the conciliation.