Judges are public officials who preside over civil and criminal trials in local, state and federal courts. All judges must have a bachelor’s degree, and most judges also hold a juris doctorate (J.D.) law degree from an accredited law school. Many judges start their careers as lawyers, gaining experience working in courtrooms and learning the ins and outs of the legal system. Specific qualifications for judges vary from state to state, but there are some general requirements that all judges must fulfill.
A bachelor’s degree is technically the only formal education requirement for limited-jurisdiction judges in most states. However, employment opportunities are much greater for those who hold law degrees and have passed a state bar examination. All federal judges are required to be lawyers. Typical bachelor’s degrees for aspiring judges are common to other legal professions and include political science, history, English, philosophy and sociology. Law school applicants must take the LSAT, a standardized test, and submit their undergraduate transcript, teacher recommendations and other required documents. Law school usually takes three years to complete, during which time students learn all aspects of the American legal system.
Extensive professional experience working in law is a requirement for most judgeships. To become a lawyer, law school graduates must pass the state bar examination in their state. After passing the exam, the individual is eligible to work as a professional lawyer at a private legal firm, government agency or other such institution. Aspiring judges slowly build up a reputation for having sound judgment, integrity and a passion for law in the hopes of being recognized by their peers. The amount of and type of law experience required of judges varies; some positions may require as much as 10 years of legal experience.
Getting Elected or Appointed
Judges are either elected or appointed depending on the court jurisdiction in which they work. The President appoints federal court justices for life, pending Senate approval. About half of state judges are appointed, while the other half are elected by voters. State and municipal judges usually have fixed terms between four and six years, though some are elected or appointed for life. This all depends on the state and level of judgeship. Some judgeships also have age requirements, such as the Supreme Court judgeship, which requires individuals to be at least 30 years old.
Upon being elected or appointed, judges must complete an orientation and training program that prepares them for the job. The American Bar Association, the Federal Judicial Center, the National Judicial College and the National Center for State Courts are among the different organizations that administer these programs, depending on the state and specific type of judgeship. Most training programs last between a few months and one year.