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Judicial Work in General

Judges, magistrates, and other judicial workers apply the law and oversee the legal process in courts according to local, State, and Federal statutes. 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 the parties present. 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 the manner in which 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 persons charged with crimes should be held in jail pending trial, or they may set conditions for their release. In civil cases, they 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; in civil cases, the judge awards relief—such as compensation for damages—to the parties to the lawsuit, called litigants. 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 courts’ 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 transcending 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 or administrative law judges; appellate court judges exercise their power 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. Instead, they usually base their decisions on lower court records and on lawyers’ written and oral arguments.

Many State court judges preside in courts whose jurisdiction is limited by law to 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 State court judges, but some States allow these judges 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, for example, on a person’s eligibility for various Social Security or workers’ compensation benefits, on protection of the environment, on the enforcement of health and safety regulations, on employment discrimination, and on compliance with economic regulatory requirements.

Arbitration, mediation, and conciliation—collectively called appropriate dispute resolution (ADR)—are alternative processes that can be used to settle disputes between parties. All ADR hearings are private and confidential, and the processes are less formal than a court trial. If no settlement is reached through ADR, no statements made during the proceedings are admissible as evidence in any subsequent litigation.

There are two 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 business persons with expertise in a particular field. The parties identify, in advance, the issues to be resolved by arbitration, the scope of the relief to be awarded, and many of the procedural aspects of the process.

Mediation, or neutral evaluation, involves an attempt by the parties to resolve their dispute with the aid of a neutral third party. This process generally is used when the parties 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 contribute to the cost of mediation. However, many mediators volunteer their services, or they may be court staff. Courts ask that voluntary mediators provide their services at the lowest possible rate and that parties split the cost. Depending on the type of case, court-referred community mediation centers may charge a small fee to the parties involved in mediation.

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; they generally share equally in the cost of the conciliation.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook

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