Winning a Seat on the Prestigious Bench
If you can’t decide whether you want to go for a lucrative career that contributes to justice or a job with reasonable hours that gives you ample quality time with the kids, stop agonizing and prepare to have it all. As a judge, you will earn a great salary, work government hours, and spend those hours laying down the law and making sure it is properly enforced. You’ll need to go to college, complete law school, pass the bar and get some experience, and winning a little political clout won’t hurt either.
Lawyers can be important, and a jury is sometimes required, but only a judge is absolutely essential in a trial or legal proceeding. Trial judges preside over court trials, supervise legal proceedings, and uphold justice and the rights of individuals in all legal processes. Their role requires them to be sure that trials and hearings follow set rules and procedures, including which evidence is admitted and who can testify. In non-jury criminal trials, judges actually cast the sole vote as to a defendant’s guilt or innocence. In matters involving money rather than crimes, judges decide issues of liability and compensation.
The job description and the basic requirements to hold the position depend on the type of judge you are interested in becoming. In municipal court, judges often deal with small claims, misdemeanors and pretrial hearings. Administrative law judges, also called magistrates, hear and decide appeals from decisions of government agencies such as workers’ compensation. State and federal trial judges handle legal cases in their court system, while appellate court judges hear and decide appeals from decisions of federal and state courts and administrative law judges.
Although some states allow people without law degrees to hold some lower court judgeships, most judges earn an undergraduate degree followed by a law degree. Most judges pass the state bar exam and are admitted to practice as attorneys, getting broad experience before moving to the bench. Some states require a bachelor’s degree and a J.D. as well as a passing score on the bar exam for judge applicants. This is universally true with federal judgeships.
The road to becoming a judge differs among jurisdictions. You can’t apply for a federal judge position. They are appointed for life by the current U.S. president with Senate confirmation. Likewise, administrative law judges in the federal system are appointed by federal agencies and are also lifetime appointees. For better or worse, political influence is often important in obtaining an appointment as a judge.
State rules are not all the same. About half of state judges must run for office, while the other half are appointed. State and municipal court judges serve fixed terms, ranging up to six years on the trial court and up to 14 years for appellate court judgeships. An appointment can be and often is renewed. Some states convene a panel or judicial nominating committee to screen potential candidates.
The median salary for a trial court judge is $140,373. That means that half of all trial court judges earn more, and half earn less than this figure. The median salary for the category judge/magistrate is $109,940 per year. Most judges also get health insurance, life insurance and retirement plan contributions. Other perks include judicial immunity protection, expense accounts, and paid vacation and sick leave. Extra education does not increase a judge’s salary, but education and experience may be prerequisites to obtaining the position.
Judges work for the government. This can be on the municipal, state or federal level. Judges cannot hold outside employment without compromising their objectivity and risking ethical complaints.
Years of Experience
If you become a judge, your salary gradually increases the more years you sit on the bench. According to Salary.com, you can expect $157,634–$159,412 as a beginning salary with gradual increases. After a decade, the salary range may be $158,729–$163,279. After two decades, you can expect a salary of about $159,549–$168,394.
Job Growth Trend
The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that employment of judges, magistrates and hearing officers will grow by 5 percent over the next decade. This is about as fast as average for all occupations. While not many new judgeships will be created in that period, competition may decrease given the current trend of lawyers preferring to work in the lucrative private sector.
From Alaska to California, from France's Basque Country to Mexico's Pacific Coast, Teo Spengler has dug the soil, planted seeds and helped trees, flowers and veggies thrive. World traveler, professional writer and consummate gardener, Spengler earned a BA from U.C. Santa Cruz, a law degree from Berkeley's Boalt Hall, and an MA and MFA from San Francisco State. She currently divides her life between San Francisco and southwestern France.