What does a Trial Judge do?

Christopher John

A trial judge is responsible for controlling the process of a criminal case or a civil lawsuit being tried before his court. A judge controls the process of a trial by conducting hearings and making rulings on various issues raised by the parties during the suit. A trial judge also makes rulings on whether to allow certain evidence into trial or exclude it. It is necessary for him or her to be well versed in the rules of procedure, the rules of evidence and the substantive law of numerous areas to perform his duties. The judge must serve impartially when hearing cases, which means he must maintain a neutral position and not show favoritism to a particular party in the case.

A trial judge must remain neutral while hearing a case.
A trial judge must remain neutral while hearing a case.

In most jurisdictions, a trial judge is responsible for hearing only certain types of cases. For example, a particular court may only hear civil or criminal cases. This is mostly because of the volume of cases and, sometimes, because of the complexity of the law. In jurisdictions that do not have a large caseload, a trial judge is often required to hear both civil and criminal cases. Depending on how a jurisdiction has set up its court system, he or she may only hear juvenile cases or family law cases such as divorces, child support and custody disputes.

A trial judge must be well-versed in the rules of procedure, which dictate how the judge must conduct a trial.
A trial judge must be well-versed in the rules of procedure, which dictate how the judge must conduct a trial.

Regardless of the type of case, a trial judge must be well-versed in the rules of procedure, which dictate how the judge must conduct a trial. A judge cannot simply make rulings whimsically. A judge must comply with the rules of procedure. If the rules are vague, the judge must look to see whether higher courts have already interpreted such provisions. If so, then the judge must follow those prior decisions.

The parties before the court try to persuade the judge to make certain decisions based on their evidence. This requires a judge to decide whether the evidence offered by a party is admissible. After listening to arguments, a trial judge will make his decision based on the rules of evidence, which controls whether the judge can allow the evidence into court. Sometimes a judge will make a ruling after conducting a special hearing on such matters, which allows the parties to submit special briefs to the court arguing their position. Other times, a trial judge must make these decisions quickly, as when a witness is testifying and a party objects to a particular question.

A trial judge decides whether the evidence offered by a party is admissible.
A trial judge decides whether the evidence offered by a party is admissible.

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Discussion Comments


@strawCake - Actually, a wisecracking trial judge sounds like something you would see on TV! But I'm glad you were entertained, and the charges against you were dropped.

In most situations, I think court is pretty formal. There was a pretty heinous murder committed in my neighborhood when I was growing up, and my mom went to the trial to support the family of the victim. She told me the judge had to do a lot of shushing and calming of the courtroom because of the circumstances of the case. That judge definitely wasn't making jokes!


I think the job of a trial judge must be very interesting! However, I don't think it's very much like what they show on television.

I had to go to court awhile back as a defendant, and the judge I got was actually pretty entertaining. He cracked a few jokes even. I was not expecting that! Anyway, the charges against me were dropped and the judge told me to have a nice day. I guess I was expecting court to be a lot more formal!


@grumpyguppy- I am not sure if the laws are different in other states or even other counties. Where I live, I know for sure that you ask for a jury trial on a misdemeanor charge. However, more often than not, misdemeanor crimes are usually just heard by the judge and it’s over quickly.

My cousin was charged with a misdemeanor crime in which he plead not guilty. His court-appointed attorney advised him that he would be better off with a trial judge rather than a jury. However, he (my cousin) was adamant that he wanted a jury trial. His request for a jury trial was approved and he was eventually found not guilty.

So, I think it is just up to you whether or not you want to get it over with by having a trial judge hear your case or choosing a jury trial.


I am curious to know if you can have a jury trial in a misdemeanor case? Do you have to have a trial judge or do you have a choice?


@nony - I think it’s up to you which one you want. If you want to skip a jury, my understanding is that you and your lawyer need to waive a jury trial and make a petition to go straight to the judge.

In the process, you can avoid some of the fees associated with jury selection. Which is better? I think that depends on the nature of your case.

People choose juries when they feel that they will be able to get the sympathy of a jury on their behalf. On the other hand, if your cases involves a lot of legal complexities that are likely to put the average juror to sleep, and there is no real emotional component to your case, you might be better off going straight to the judge.


@David09 - What is the difference between a jury trial vs judge trial? I know that in some cases you can have a judge trial.

Like you, I've picked up on a few things from watching television shows. In small claims court, you can have a judge preside and make final decisions. Is it possible for someone to choose a judge trial versus a jury trial?


I was a juror in a major criminal case in our town; it was my first time on jury duty, and it happened to be a murder trial involving inner city gang violence. I thought that was a tall order for my first jury duty experience.

Anyway, since this was all new to me, what I was interested in most of all was how this would compare to what I saw on the television shows.

There were the trial attorneys, each of them bringing their evidence and making their case to the jury. There was the occasional objection here and there, but there were no real fireworks, or courtroom drama.

A few times the judge would call the attorneys to the bench for conference; sometimes he would give them instructions or deem certain evidence inadmissible.

It was interesting to watch and eventually be part of the whole process myself when we finally went into deliberations.

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