Judges are outward symbols of the court system and are essential for the adjudication of disputes. Judges are selected through partisan elections, non-partisan elections, appointment, merit selection, and legislative appointment. In a partisan election, judges run on a ballot in which their political party is indicated. This system is utilized in state and local elections. In a non-partisan election, judges run on a ballot for popular election without indication of a political party. This system is used for the election of some state court trial judges and municipal court judges. Judicial appointment is used for state interim and Article III federal judge appointments. Interim appointments are made by the governor until the term of office expires or another election is held. Article III appointments are for federal district court judges, Courts of Appeals judges, and U.S. Supreme Court justices. Merit selection combines elements of election and appointment. Applicants are evaluated by a nominating committee, and names are sent to the governor to make a final selection until the next general election is held. Legislative appointments are used only in South Carolina and Virginia. Though each system has strengths and weaknesses, there is no data to indicate that one system is superior to another.
State court judges of general jurisdiction must be licensed attorneys and have prior law practice experience. In courts of limited jurisdiction, 29 states allow non-lawyer judges. While there are no formal qualifications for federal judges, Congress and the Department of Justice have created their own selective criteria. Federal judges are appointed for life terms, and may only be removed for impeachment or conviction of certain offenses. Magistrate judges assist federal district judges with their workloads, are appointed by district judges, and serve 8-year or 4-year terms. Bankruptcy judges handle district court bankruptcy cases, are selected by Courts of Appeals judges, and serve 14-year terms.
For judicial misconduct, state judges may be subject to discipline by the state's Judicial Conduct Commission and federal judges may be subject to impeachment. Judges are free from control of others when making judicial decisions. However, the judiciary is dependent upon the legislative and executive branches for various functions, and must also be accountable to the citizens that they serve.
The judiciary also has many quasi-judicial officers who assist and are subservient to judges. Quasi-judicial officers include masters, U.S. magistrate judges, referees, mediators, and hearing officers.
Before trial, judges issue warrants, summonses, and subpoenas; set bail; conduct hearings; rule on motions; and establish a docket. During trial, judges act as neutral referees; preside over jury selection; rule on motions; and give jury instructions. After trial, judges impose sentences and handle probation revocation. Appellate judges review criminal cases for errors in trial or sentencing, and review civil cases to consider overturning or modifying judgments.
Judges are responsible for ensuring the smooth administration of justice in their courts. Because few judges are prepared to handle administrative responsibilities, some courts employ court coordinators, while others create chief judge positions to handle administrative tasks.