The most visible responsibility of judges is presiding over trials or hearings and listening as attorneys represent their clients. Judges rule on the admissibility of evidence and the methods of conducting testimony, and they may be called on 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, judges interpret the law to determine how the trial will proceed.
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 people charged with crimes should be held in jail pending trial, or they may set conditions for their release. In civil cases, judges and magistrates occasionally impose restrictions on 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 cases. In such instances, the judge determines guilt in criminal cases and imposes sentences on the guilty; in civil cases, the judge awards relief—such as compensation for damages—to the winning parties to the lawsuit.
Judges also work outside the courtroom, in their chambers or private offices. There, 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 court’s 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 that transcend 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 judges or administrative law judges. Appellate court judges overrule decisions 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 contact with litigants—the people who bring the case or who are on trial. Instead, they usually base their decisions on the lower court's records and on lawyers' written and oral arguments.
Many State court judges hear only 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 these 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 on, for example, (1) a person's eligibility for various Social Security or workers' compensation benefits, (2) protection of the environment, (3) the enforcement of health and safety regulations, (4) employment discrimination, and (5) compliance with economic regulatory requirements.
Some people work as arbitrators, mediators, or conciliators instead of as judges or magistrates. They assist with alternative dispute resolution—a collection of processes used to settle disputes outside of court. All hearings are private and confidential, and the processes are less formal than a court trial. If no settlement is reached, no statements made during the proceedings are admissible as evidence in any subsequent litigation.
There are two main types of arbitration: compulsory and voluntary. During compulsory arbitration, opposing parties submit their dispute to one or more impartial persons, called arbitrators, for a final and nonbinding decision. Either party may reject the ruling and request a trial in court. Voluntary arbitration is a process in which opposing parties choose one or more arbitrators to hear their dispute and submit a final, binding decision.
Arbitrators usually are attorneys or businesspeople with expertise in a particular field. In arbitration, parties identify, in advance, the issues to be resolved, the scope of the relief to be awarded, and many of the procedural aspects of the process.
Mediators are neutral parties who help people to resolve their disputes outside of court. Parties to a dispute often use mediators when they wish to preserve their relationship. A mediator may offer suggestions, but resolution of the dispute rests with the parties themselves. Mediation proceedings also are 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 share the cost of mediation. However, many mediators volunteer their services, or they may be court staff. Courts ask that mediators provide their services at the lowest possible rate and that the parties split the cost.
Conciliation, or facilitation, 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.
Arbitrators, mediators, or conciliators also use other forms of dispute resolution, including executive minitrials, early neutral evaluations, and summary jury trials. An executive minitrial is a process that involves negotiation including senior executives who have no involvement with the issues that led to the disagreement. Senior executives from each side listen to a summary of key elements of the dispute presented by each of the parties. The presentations may be made to the executives on their own, or by agreement of the parties, a neutral third party may be present. In early neutral evaluation, a person experienced in the subject matter of a litigated dispute will hold a brief, nonbinding meeting to hear the parties outline the key elements of their cases. The evaluator will identify the main issues and explore the possibility of settlement. If a settlement can’t be reached, the evaluator may assist the parties by indicating procedural recommendations. A summary jury trial is a form of alternative dispute resolution in which jurors are asked to render a nonbinding verdict after an expedited hearing. The verdict may be binding if the parties consent.
Work environment. Judges, magistrates, and other judicial workers do most of their work in offices, law libraries, and courtrooms. Work in these occupations presents few hazards, although sitting in the same position in the courtroom for long periods can be tiring. Most judges wear robes when they are in a courtroom. Judges typically work a standard 40-hour week, but many work more than 50 hours per week. Some judges with limited jurisdiction are employed part time and divide their time between their judicial responsibilities and other careers.
Arbitrators, mediators, and conciliators usually work in private offices or meeting rooms; no public record of the proceedings is kept. Arbitrators, mediators, and conciliators often travel to a site chosen for negotiations, but some work from home. Arbitrators, mediators, and conciliators usually work a standard 35- to 40-hour week. However, longer hours might be necessary when contract agreements are being prepared and negotiated.
Judges decide cases when the law does not require a jury trial or when the parties waive their right to a jury.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2006-07 Edition, Interpreters and Translators, on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos175.htm (visited 11th August 2010)
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