To become a judge, a person will first need to obtain an undergraduate degree. The majority of judges have a law degree (JD) and have practiced as attorneys. There are no required undergraduate fields of study to apply for law school. However, many individuals who want to become lawyers obtain a bachelor’s degree in a relevant subject like criminal justice, politics, legal studies, or business.
To become a lawyer, an individual will need to attend a law school that is accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA). If studying full-time, this degree will take three years to complete. Once the J.D. degree is obtained, you can sit for the bar exam. Successful completion of this exam is required to become an attorney.
Types of Judges
If you are interested in becoming a judge, it is in your best interest to work as an attorney for several years and gain a reputation as a respectable lawyer. This will give you court experience and connections to move forward as a judge.
Federal Court Judges
Magistrate Judge. Magistrate courts are a part of the U.S. district court system. This means that they are special courts created by Congress and they handle only certain types of criminal and civil suits. Judges are appointed by the President with the consent of the Senate. A judge typically spends 15 years in office.
U.S. District Court Judge. There are currently 94 district courts. Each state has at least one district court and larger states are required to have more. Each district court has more than one judge. Larger states may have over 20 judges in one district. Judges are appointed by the President under the advice of a judicial review panel.
Court of Appeals Judge. These judges hear cases involving appeals. They are also appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.
Supreme Court Judge. When it comes to the judicial system, the Supreme Court is the final deciding body. The court is located in D.C. and it is comprised of nine justices. One Chief Justice manages the others. Again, any appointments to the court are made by the President and approved by the Senate. There is no term limit and these appointments are made usually after long debates in the Senate.
State Court Judges
State courts judge appointments differ from federal judge ones. States are allowed to determine their own rules for hiring and appointing judges. For example, a state may require a potential judge to reside in the state for a certain amount of time, be a certain age, and have practiced law for a specific amount of time.
States can also determine the amount of time a judge can serve. This can vary between districts and levels of court. At the state level, becoming a judge is usually decided in one of three ways: merit selection, election, or appointment.
Merit selection means that the judge is designated by a state legislative committee. These decisions are made based on past history and performance. A judge election can be either partisan or non-partisan. This means that the electorate votes and the state determines if the judge candidate will have their party affiliation linked to them on the ballot. Finally, a state judge can be appointed directly by the state’s governor or legislature.
Administrative Law Judges
An administrative law judge oversees decisions concerning administrative hearings, usually concerning regulatory and benefits-granting agencies. The largest employer of these judges is the Social Security Administration. They are appointed by following the Administrative Procedure Act of 1946, which requires them to be an attorney, sit for a four-hour exam, take an oral exam, and be approved by a panel of legal peers.
Alternative Ways to Become a Judge
Not all judges are lawyers. Some don’t even have law degrees or have had a law job. While the majority of judges at the federal level were previous attorneys, it would be possible for the President to select a non-attorney and for the senate to approve them to become a judge.
On the state level, there are more chances to become a judge without being a lawyer first. For example, in some states like Montana, a non-lawyer can become a justice of the peace. This person has the power to send some defendants to jail for up to six months in rural areas. The only thing that is required for this position is approval from voters in the jurisdiction.