Judges and Hearing Officers

Career, Salary and Education Information

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What Judges and Hearing Officers Do[About this section] [To Top]

Judges and hearing officers apply the law by overseeing the legal process in courts. They also conduct pretrial hearings, resolve administrative disputes, facilitate negotiations between opposing parties, and issue legal decisions.

Duties of Judges and Hearing Officers

Judges and hearing officers typically do the following:

  • Research legal issues
  • Read and evaluate information from documents, such as motions, claim applications, and records
  • Preside over hearings and listen to and read arguments by opposing parties
  • Determine if the information presented supports the charge, claim, or dispute
  • Decide if the procedure is being conducted according to the rules and law
  • Apply laws or precedents to reach judgments and to resolve disputes between parties
  • Write opinions, decisions, and instructions regarding cases, claims, and disputes

Judges commonly preside over trials and hearings of cases regarding nearly every aspect of society, from individual traffic offenses to issues concerning the rights of large corporations. Judges listen to arguments and determine if the evidence presented deserves a trial. In criminal cases, judges may decide that people charged with crimes should be held in jail until the trial, or they may set conditions for their release. They also approve search warrants and arrest warrants.

Judges interpret the law to determine how a trial will proceed, which is particularly important when unusual circumstances arise for which standard procedures have not been established. They ensure that hearings and trials are conducted fairly and that the legal rights of all involved parties are protected.

In trials in which juries are selected to decide the case, judges instruct jurors on applicable laws and direct them to consider the facts from the evidence. For other trials, judges decide the case. A judge who determines guilt in criminal cases may impose a sentence or penalty on the guilty party. In civil cases, the judge may award relief, such as compensation for damages, to the parties who win lawsuits.

Judges use various forms of technology, such as electronic databases and software, to manage cases and to prepare for trials. In some cases, a judge may manage the court’s administrative and clerical staff.

The following are examples of types of judges and hearing officers:

Judges, magistrate judges, and magistrates preside over trials and hearings. They typically work in local, state, and federal courts.

In local and state court systems, they have a variety of titles, such as municipal court judge, county court judge, and justice of the peace. Traffic violations, misdemeanors, small-claims cases, and pretrial hearings make up the bulk of these judges’ work.

In federal and state court systems, district court judges and general trial court judges have authority over any case in their system. Appellate court judges rule on a small number of cases, by reviewing decisions of the lower courts and lawyers’ written and oral arguments.

Administrative law judges, adjudicators, and hearing officers usually work for local, state, and federal government agencies. They decide many issues, such as whether a person is eligible for workers’ compensation benefits or whether employment discrimination occurred.

Work Environment for Judges and Hearing Officers[About this section] [To Top]

Judges and hearing officers hold about 44,800 jobs. The industries that employ the most judges and hearing officers are as follows:

State government, excluding education and hospitals 49%
Local government, excluding education and hospitals 42
Federal government 9

Judges and hearing officers do most of their work in offices and courtrooms. Their jobs can be demanding, because they must sit in the same position in the court or hearing room for long periods and give undivided attention to the process.

Some judges and hearing officers may be required to travel to different counties and courthouses throughout their state.

Judge and Hearing Officer Work Schedules

Most judges and hearing officers work full time, but some may work additional hours to prepare for hearings.

Some courthouses have evening and weekend hours. In addition, judges have to be on call during nights or weekends to issue emergency orders, such as search warrants and restraining orders.

How to Become a Judge or Hearing Officer[About this section] [To Top]

Get the education you need: Find schools for Judges and Hearing Officers near you!

Judges and hearing officers typically must have a law degree and work experience as a lawyer.

Judge and Hearing Officer Education

Although there may be a few positions available for those with a bachelor’s degree, a law degree typically is required for most jobs as a local, state, or federal judge or hearing officer.

In addition to earning a law degree, federal administrative law judges must pass a competitive exam from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

Earning a law degree usually takes 7 years of full-time study after high school: 4 years of undergraduate study, followed by 3 years of law school. Law degree programs include courses such as constitutional law, contracts, property law, civil procedure, and legal writing. For more information on how to become a lawyer, see the profile on lawyers.

Most judges and magistrates must be appointed or elected into their positions, a procedure that often takes political support. Many local and state judges are appointed to serve fixed renewable terms, ranging from 4 to 14 years. A few judges, such as appellate court judges, are appointed for life. Judicial nominating commissions screen candidates for judgeships in many states and for some federal judgeships. Some local and state judges are elected to a specific term in an election process.

For specific state information, including information on the number of judgeships by state, term lengths, and requirements for qualification, visit the National Center for State Courts.

Work Experience in a Related Occupation

Most judges and hearing officers learn their skills through years of experience as practicing lawyers. Some states allow those who are not lawyers to hold limited-jurisdiction judgeships, but opportunities are better for those with law experience.

Judge and Hearing Officer Training

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.

More than half of all states, as well as Puerto Rico, require judges to take continuing education courses while serving on the bench. General and continuing education courses usually last from a few days to 3 weeks.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Most judges and hearing officers are required to have a law license. In addition, they typically must maintain their law license and good standing with their state bar association while working as a judge or hearing officer.

Advancement for Judges and Hearing Officers

Advancement for some judicial workers means moving to courts with a broader jurisdiction. Advancement for various hearing officers includes taking on more complex cases, practicing law, and becoming district court judges.

Important Qualities for Judges and Hearing Officers

Critical-thinking skills. Judges and hearing officers must apply rules of law. They cannot let their own personal assumptions interfere with the proceedings. For example, they must base their decisions on specific meanings of the law when evaluating and deciding whether a person is a threat to others and must be sent to jail.

Decisionmaking skills. Judges and hearing officers must be able to weigh the facts, to apply the law and rules, and to make a decision relatively quickly.

Listening skills. Judges and hearing officers evaluate information, so they must pay close attention to what is being said.

Reading skills. Judges and hearing officers must be able to distinguish important facts from large amounts of sometimes complex information and then evaluate the facts objectively.

Writing skills. Judges and hearing officers write recommendations and decisions on appeals and disputes. They must be able to write their decisions clearly so that all sides understand the decision.

Judge and Hearing Officer Salaries[About this section] [More salary/earnings info] [To Top]

The median annual wage for administrative law judges, adjudicators, and hearing officers is $90,600. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $40,270, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $158,700.

The median annual wage for judges, magistrate judges, and magistrates is $126,930. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $36,720, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $186,720.

The median annual wages for judges and hearing officers in the top industries in which they work are as follows:

State government, excluding education and hospitals $123,660
Federal government 122,260
Local government, excluding education and hospitals 80,330

Most judges and hearing officers work full time, and many often work additional hours to prepare for case hearings.

Some courthouses have evening and weekend hours. In addition, judges have to be on call during nights or weekends to issue emergency orders, such as search warrants and restraining orders.

Job Outlook for Judges and Hearing Officers[About this section] [To Top]

Employment of judges and hearing officers is projected to show little or no change over the next ten years.

The number of federal and state judgeships is projected to remain steady because nearly every new position for a judge must be authorized and approved by a legislature.

However, budgetary constraints in federal, state, and local governments are expected to limit the ability of these governments to fill vacant positions or authorize new ones. Furthermore, budgetary concerns may limit the employment growth of hearing officers and administrative law judges working for local, state, and federal government agencies, despite the continued need for these workers to settle disputes.

In addition, the desire of parties to resolve disputes through mediation or arbitration, rather than litigation and trials, may adversely affect the demand for judges and hearing officers.

Judges and Hearing Officers Job Prospects

The prestige associated with becoming a judge will ensure continued competition for these positions. Most job openings will arise as a result of judges and hearing officers leaving the occupation because of retirement, to teach, or because their elected term is over.

Employment projections data for Judges and Hearing Officers, 2014-24
Occupational Title Employment, 2014 Projected Employment, 2024 Change, 2014-24
Percent Numeric
Judges and hearing officers 44,800 44,400 -1 -400
  Administrative law judges, adjudicators, and hearing officers 15,000 14,500 -4 -500
  Judges, magistrate judges, and magistrates 29,700 29,900 1 200


*Some content used by permission of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor.

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