What Does a Judge Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

A day in the life of a judge

The Balance / Derek Abella

A judge is an appointed or elected magistrate who presides over court proceedings. Judges rule on questions of law, act as a referee between the litigating parties, and render decisions in legal disputes.

Judge Duties & Responsibilities

Judges perform a variety of tasks inside and outside the courtroom. In the courtroom, they perform the following duties:

  • Hear allegations of the prosecuting and defending parties.
  • Listen to witness testimony.
  • Rule on the admissibility of evidence.
  • Inform defendants of their rights.
  • Instruct the jury.
  • Question witnesses.
  • Rule on motions presented by counsel.
  • In criminal court, determine the guilt or innocence of criminal defendants and impose sentences on defendants found guilty.
  • In civil cases, determine liability or damages.

Judges don't do all of their work in the courtroom. They perform certain duties outside the courtroom (in chambers) as well. They research laws and regulations, issue opinions and case decisions, supervise the work of law clerks and other court staff, meet with attorneys to discuss cases and encourage settlement, and establish court rules and procedures. Some judges also perform marriage ceremonies and issue marriage licenses.

Judge Salary

A judge's salary varies based on the area of expertise, level of experience, education, certifications, and other factors. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the salary ranges differ depending on the type of judge. Generally, the highest paying judgeships are those within the federal court system. Judges with limited jurisdiction, such as magistrates, generally earn the lowest salaries.

For administrative law judges, adjudicators, and hearing officers:

  • Median Annual Salary: $99,850 ($48 /hour)
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: More than $169,640 ($81.56/hour)
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: Less than $45,120 ($21.69/hour)

For judges, magistrate judges, and magistrates:

  • Median Annual Salary: $133,920 ($64.38 /hour)
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: More than $193,330 ($92.95/hour)
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: Less than $34,790 ($16.73/hour)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018

Education, Training & Certification

The judge position involves fulfilling education and training requirements as follows:

  • Education: Most, but not all, judges possess law degrees. State and federal judges typically complete the educational requirements to become a lawyer and work for several years as an attorney before entering the judicial system. Some judges are elected or appointed to serve for fixed terms.
  • Exam: In addition to a law degree, federal administrative law judges need to pass a competitive exam from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.
  • Training: Training for judges and other judicial-branch personnel is provided by the Federal Judicial Center, American Bar Association, National Judicial College, and National Center for State Courts.

Judge Skills & Competencies

In addition to education and other requirements, candidates that possess the following skills may be able to perform more successfully in the job:

  • Logic and reasoning skills: Judges must possess excellent logical reasoning, analytical, and decision-making skills to analyze a complex case and statutory law and render sound legal decisions.
  • Legal knowledge: Thorough knowledge of criminal and civil procedures, jurisdictional rules, and the court system is critical.
  • Writing skills: Top-notch writing ability is necessary to draft clear, concise, and well-researched opinions, bench memoranda, and other legal documents.
  • Mediation skills: Excellent mediation skills are necessary to resolve discovery disputes and promote a settlement between the parties.

Job Outlook

Overall employment for judges is projected to grow slower than average, but varies by specialty, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Although caseloads are increasing, budgetary issues may limit judicial hiring.

Most job opportunities will arise through judicial retirement, promotion to higher judicial offices, and the creation of new judgeships as authorized by law. Candidates with law degrees, legal experience, and excellent academic credentials will find greater employment opportunities.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job growth outlook for all judge occupations between 2016 and 2026 ranges from 4% to 6%, driven by budgetary constraints that limit the number of available jobs. This growth rate compares to the projected 7% growth for all occupations.

The prestige associated with becoming a judge, and the fact that many need to be elected or nominated into the position, also ensure continued competition for these positions.

Work Environment

Judges spend the bulk of their working hours in a courtroom or office. Some judges may be required to travel to different courthouses and counties within their local area or state. Hearing cases with difficult or confrontational individuals can cause the job to become stressful.

Work Schedule

Judges may work evening hours and on the weekends. Additionally, they may need to be available at all hours in case of the need for a search warrant or restraining order.

How to Get the Job


Visit online job portals such as USCourts.gov to search for judiciary jobs, and look for judiciary jobs on the U.S. Department of Justice website. Visit trade associations, such as the American Judges Association, these associations often have career sections with job listings. These types of sites often have other useful resources that can aid you in your job search.


Since most judges are elected or appointed to their positions, they must spend time networking and garnering political support. Many judges at the local and state level are appointed to terms ranging from 4 to 14 years. These are fixed, and often renewable, terms. A small number of judges, such as those working in the appellate court, are appointed for a life-long term.

Comparing Similar Jobs

People interested in a judicial career also consider the following career paths, listed with the median annual salaries:

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018