Maybe you love the feel of a gavel in your hand. Perhaps, you look really good in a robe, or it could be you have a strong passion for upholding the Constitution. Whatever your reason for becoming a judge, you’re in for a rewarding career as a key enforcer of our legal system. Becoming a judge is not a simple process, but it shouldn’t be. You’re asking the public to trust you to defend their rights and keep the fabric of our democratic nation from fraying. As Uncle Ben told Peter Parker, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Who sits on the bench matters significantly, and great care and self-evaluation should be taken before deciding on this career path.
If you’re sure that you would not only enjoy being a judge but also would do a good and fair job for the public, consider the following:
Types of Judges
From low to high, these are the three main types of federal judges, all of whom are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate for a life sentence, per Article III of the Constitution. They hear cases that deal with the constitutionality of a law, disputes between states, bankruptcy, and habeas corpus issues, among others.
U.S. District Court Judge
The United States legal system is comprised of 94 districts across all 50 states. The bigger the state, the more districts it has. Each district has its own set of judges, based on size and population. Judges at this level preside over trials in which a jury delivers a verdict or render a verdict when a jury is not present.
Court of Appeals Judge
The US has 13 Courts of Appeals. When a defendant does not agree with the outcome of a trial in a U.S. District Court, she can appeal, sending it to a Court of Appeals. There is no “do-over” for the prosecution or defense. No witnesses are re-heard, and no evidence is re-submitted. A judge at this level simply reviews the procedures of the trial at the U.S. District Court level and decides whether the trial was fair and the verdict stands or the trial was unfair and the case will be retried or a plea negotiated.
U.S. Supreme Court Judge
The highest court in our country, nine justices make up the Supreme Court. If a defendant loses his or her appeal in a Court of Appeals, the case can be appealed again to the Supreme Court. Not all cases that are submitted to the Supreme Court for appeal will be taken on. About 7,000 cases are submitted to the Supreme Court each year, but the Supreme Court takes on only about 130 of them and some of those without hearing an argument.
State judges are typically appointed by the Governor or elected by the public. They deal with issues at the state level like state laws and state constitutions, hearing criminal, probate, contract, personal injury, and other types of cases.
Known as Superior Court Judges, Trial Judges, or Circuit Court Judges, these judges are often divided into departments like:
- Family Court
- Traffic Court
- Immigration Court
- Juvenile Court
- Probate Court
If one of these types of judgeships sounds appealing to you, you need to start by building legal experience by:
Clerking for a Judge
After finishing law school and passing the bar, get a few years of experience under your belt, ideally in the judicial branch as a clerk. A clerk conducts legal research and drafts opinions for the judge, among other assistant duties.
To find a federal clerkship (or appellate attorney position) visit:https://oscar.uscourts.gov
To find a state clerkship, visit your state’s judicial website.
…Or working for the judicial branch
You don’t necessarily need to clerk for a judge to become one. You can parlay other legal experience in the judiciary into a job as a judge.
Search for jobs in federal courts, federal public defender organizations, and the Administrative Office of the United States Courts here: http://www.uscourts.gov/careers/search-judiciary-jobs
To find a state job in the judiciary, visit your state’s judicial website.
After you’ve accrued significant legal experience, it’s time to put your name in the ring for a judgeship in one of two ways:
Get Appointed or Get Elected
Federal judges—like Supreme Court justices, court of appeals judges, and district court judges—are nominated by the President. Nominees are then confirmed by the Senate for a life term.
In most states, attorneys can submit themselves to a nomination committee to be considered for a judgeship. Visit your state government’s website for application requirements specific to your state.
Take a look at California’s requirements as an example:
On the application, you’ll be asked about your education, work history, and business interests. You’ll also be asked to provide references.
Check out some of the following question examples from California’s application for appointment as a judge of the superior court:
Describe your personal background, character, personality traits, professional and life experiences, education, training, and/or skills which make you qualified and suitable for a judicial appointment and which you believe enrich your ability to serve as a judge.
What professional accomplishment are you most proud of?
For the past five years, list the five most significant matters you have resolved without trial (e.g., by dispositive motion, settlement, negotiation). For each matter, provide the name of the entity or tribunal involved, case name, type and description of case, dates involved, party you represented, name of the judge or other decision maker, resolution or disposition, names, current addresses and telephone numbers of counsel for the other parties, and the names, current addresses and telephone numbers of co-counsel, if applicable.
Your application will be reviewed; and, if you’re deemed the best candidate, you’ll be appointed to the bench by the state Governor.
Unlike federal judges, this appointment is not forever. At the next election in California, for instance, voters will vote to confirm the nomination. If confirmed by the electorate, the California State Supreme Court justices and judges in the State Courts of Appeals will serve for 12 years before having to be elected to retain their positions. California Superior Court justices serve six-year terms.
There are only so many judgeships available; and, if you want in, it’s all about the timing:
If a judge retires, leaving a sudden vacancy, a replacement will be appointed. If a judge must be elected to retain her position, any individual may challenge her in an election, just like in any political campaign.
To be appointed, you have to be experienced and connected.
To be elected, you have to run a smart campaign—which often involves being experienced and connected.
The right path for to the bench for you will depend on your personal history and personality.
Compensation for Judges
Once you’ve made it onto the bench, you’ll be compensated very well.
Per CNBC, Associate Justices on the Supreme Court make $255,300/year, and the Chief Justice makes $267,000/year.
State judge salaries will vary by state; but, sticking with California as our example, click here for all judicial salaries listed on the government’s website. In 2014, the median salary for a superior court judge was $176,000, as a barometer.
Judges serve one of the most important roles in the legal system. This position of power comes with the heavy responsibility of affecting people’s and entire generation’s lives. The work you do as a judge has the potential to impact society as a whole. If you’re up for the challenge, this may be the right legal career path for you!