Judges, Magistrates, and Other Judicial Workers

Significant Points

  • A bachelor's degree and work experience are the minimum requirements for a judgeship or magistrate position, but most workers have law degrees and some are elected; training requirements for arbitrators, mediators, and conciliators vary.
  • Overall employment is projected to grow more slowly than average, but this varies by occupational specialty.
  • Competition is expected for judge or magistrate jobs because of the prestige associated with serving on the bench.

Nature of the Work

Judges, magistrates, and other judicial workers apply the law and oversee the legal process in courts. They preside over cases concerning every aspect of society, from traffic offenses, to disputes over the management of professional sports, to issues concerning the rights of huge corporations. All judicial workers must ensure that trials and hearings are conducted fairly and that the court safeguards the legal rights of all parties involved.

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.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

A bachelor's degree and work experience usually constitute the minimum requirements for judges and magistrates, but most workers have law degrees and some are elected. Training requirements for arbitrators, mediators, and conciliators vary.

Education and training. Most judges have been lawyers. In fact, Federal and State judges usually are required to be lawyers, which means that they have attended law school and passed an examination. About 40 States allow nonlawyers to hold limited-jurisdiction judgeships, but opportunities are better for those with law experience.

Federal administrative law judges must be lawyers and pass a competitive examination administered by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. Some State administrative law judges and other hearing officials are not required to be lawyers.

All States have some type of orientation for newly elected or appointed judges. The Federal Judicial Center, American Bar Association, National Judicial College, and National Center for State Courts provide judicial education and training for judges and other judicial-branch personnel. General and continuing education courses usually last from a few days to 3 weeks. More than half of all States, as well as Puerto Rico, require judges to take continuing education courses while serving on the bench.

Training for arbitrators, mediators, and conciliators is available through independent mediation programs, national and local mediation membership organizations, and postsecondary schools. To practice in State-funded or court-funded mediation programs, mediators usually must meet specific training or experience standards, which vary by State and court. Most mediators complete a 40-hour basic course and a 20-hour advanced training course. Some people receive training by volunteering at a community mediation center or by co-mediating cases with an experienced mediator. Others go on to complete an advanced degree that consists of a 2-year master’s program in dispute resolution or conflict management, a 4-year to 5-year doctoral program, or a certificate program in conflict resolution at a college or university. Many mediators have a law (JD) degree, but master’s degrees in public policy, law, and related fields also provide good background for prospective arbitrators, mediators, and conciliators.

Licensure. There are no national credentials or licensure requirements for arbitrators, mediators, and conciliators. In fact, State regulatory requirements vary widely. Some States require arbitrators to be experienced lawyers. Some States license mediators while other States register or certify them. Currently, only five States—Florida, New Hampshire, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia—have certification programs. In addition, at the Federal level, the U.S. Department of the Navy certifies mediators who have met the Department’s requirements.

Increasingly, credentialing programs are being offered through professional organizations. For example, the American Arbitration Association requires mediators listed on its mediation panel to complete their training course, receive recommendations from the trainers, and complete an apprenticeship.

Other qualifications. Judges and magistrates must be appointed or elected a procedure that often takes political support. Federal administrative law judges are appointed by various Federal agencies, with virtually lifetime tenure. Federal magistrate judges are appointed by district judges—the life-tenured Federal judges of district courts—to serve in a U.S. district court for 8 years. A part-time Federal magistrate judge's term of office is 4 years. Some State judges are appointed, but the remainder are elected in partisan or nonpartisan State elections. Many State and local judges serve fixed renewable terms ranging from 4 to 6 years for some trial court judgeships to as long as 14 years or even life for other trial or appellate court judgeships. Judicial nominating commissions, composed of members of the bar and the public, are used to screen candidates for judgeships in many States and for some Federal judgeships.

Arbitrators, mediators, and conciliators must have knowledge of different mediation techniques and processes as well as knowledge of dispute resolution methods in order to be able to do their jobs successfully. They also must have good communication and listening skills and the ability to run successful meetings and negotiate a solution to a dispute. The ability to evaluate large amounts of information that are sometimes complex is essential. Good writing skills and technical problem-solving skills also is a must. Arbitrators, mediators, and conciliators who specialize in a particular area, such as construction or insurance, may need to have knowledge of that industry and must be able to relate well to people from different cultures and backgrounds.

Advancement. Some judicial workers move to higher courts or to courts with broader jurisdiction. Advancement for alternative-dispute workers includes taking on more complex cases, starting a business, practicing law, or becoming district court judges.


Judges, magistrates, and other judicial workers held 51,200 jobs in 2008. Judges, magistrate judges, and magistrates held 26,900 jobs, all in State and local governments. Administrative law judges, adjudicators, and hearing officers held 14,400 jobs, with 24 percent in the Federal Government. Arbitrators, mediators, and conciliators held another 9,900 jobs. Approximately 26 percent worked for State and local governments. The remainder worked for labor organizations, law offices, insurance carriers, and other private companies and organizations that specialize in providing dispute resolution services.

Job Outlook

Overall employment is projected to grow more slowly than average, but varies by specialty. Judges and magistrates are expected to encounter competition for jobs because of the prestige associated with serving on the bench.

Employment change. Overall employment of judges, magistrates, and other judicial workers is expected to grow 4 percent over the 2008–18 projection period, slower than the average for all occupations. Budgetary pressures at all levels of government are expected to hold down the hiring of judges despite rising caseloads, particularly in Federal courts. However, the continued need to cope with crime and settle disputes, as well as the public's willingness to go to court to settle disputes, should spur demand for judges.

Demographic shifts in the population also will spur demand for judges. For instance, the number of immigrants migrating to the United States will continue to rise, thereby increasing the demand for judges to handle the complex issues associated with immigrants. In addition, demand for judges will increase because, as the U.S. population ages, the courts are expected to reform guardianship policies and practices and develop new strategies to address elder abuse. Both the quantity and the complexity of judges' work have increased because of developments in information technology, medical science, electronic commerce, and globalization.

Employment of arbitrators, mediators, and conciliators is expected to grow faster than the average for all occupations through 2018. Many individuals and businesses try to avoid litigation, which can involve lengthy delays, high costs, unwanted publicity, and ill will. Arbitration and other alternatives to litigation usually are faster, less expensive, and more conclusive, spurring demand for the services of arbitrators, mediators, and conciliators. Demand also will continue to increase for arbitrators, mediators, and conciliators because all jurisdictions now have some type of alternative dispute resolution program. Some jurisdictions have programs requiring disputants to meet with a mediator in certain circumstances, such as when attempting to resolve child custody issues.

Job prospects. The prestige associated with serving on the bench will ensure continued competition for judge and magistrate positions. However, a growing number of candidates are choosing to forgo the bench and work in the private sector, where pay may be significantly higher. This trend may lessen the competition somewhat. Turnover is low among judges, and most job openings will arise as they retire. Additional openings will occur when new judgeships are authorized by law or when judges are elevated to higher judicial offices.

Jobs should be available for arbitrators, mediators, and conciliators, but opportunities may be limited because, as with judges, turnover is low. Once these workers have the appropriate qualifications and skills, they tend to remain in the occupation for many years. Those with certification and specialization in one or more areas of arbitration, mediation, or conciliation should have the best job opportunities.


Judges, magistrate judges, and magistrates had median annual wages of $110,220 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $51,760 and $141,190. The top 10 percent earned more than $162,140, while the bottom 10 percent earned less than $32,290. Median annual wages in the industries employing the largest numbers of judges, magistrate judges, and magistrates in May 2008 were $126,080 in State government and $77,390 in local government. Administrative law judges, adjudicators, and hearing officers earned annual median wages of $76,940, and arbitrators, mediators, and conciliators earned an annual median of $50,660.

In the Federal court system, the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court earned $217,400 in January 2008, and the Associate Justices averaged $208,100. Federal court-of-appeals judges earned an average of $179,500 a year, while district court judges had average salaries of $169,300, as did judges in the Court of Federal Claims and the Court of International Trade. Federal judges with limited jurisdiction, such as magistrates and bankruptcy judges, had average salaries of $155,756.

According to a 2008 survey by the National Center for State Courts, salaries of chief justices of State highest courts averaged $150,850 and ranged from $107,404 to $228,856. Annual salaries of associate justices of the State highest courts averaged $145,194 and ranged from $106,185 to $218,237. Salaries of State intermediate appellate court judges averaged $141,263 and ranged from $105,050 to $204,599. Salaries of State judges of general jurisdiction trial courts averaged $130,533 and ranged from $99,234 to $178,789.

Most salaried judges are provided health, life, and dental insurance; pension plans; judicial immunity protection; expense accounts; vacation, holiday, and sick leave; and contributions to retirement plans made on their behalf. In many States, judicial compensation committees, which make recommendations on the amount of salary increases, determine judicial salaries. States without commissions have statutes that regulate judicial salaries, link judicial salaries to increases in pay for Federal judges, or adjust annual pay according to the change in the Consumer Price Index, calculated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

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