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What Is a Judge's Role in Court?

Most people know that a judge presides over court proceedings. But the judge's role changes based on your case type. It also depends on the court your case is in.

In a bench trial, where the judge acts as the trier of fact, the parties only have to convince the judge that they should win the case. In a jury trial, the jury decides who wins in the dispute. The judge's role in the proceeding changes based on whether it is a bench or jury trial.

This article first describes a judge's general roles and duties in a trial. It then describes the differences between a bench and a jury trial. Specifically, it explains how the judge's role differs between the different types of court proceedings. It also briefly describes judges' roles on appeal.

What Does a Judge Do?

A judge has several roles during a court proceeding. These roles and duties help to ensure a fair trial for all parties. This section describes a judge's most important roles and duties in all court cases. These roles and duties apply in civil and criminal cases and in state and federal courts.

Ensure Proper Decorum

One of the judiciary's roles is to ensure that all parties, attorneys, and witnesses follow proper courtroom decorum. Although this doesn't sound particularly exciting, proper decorum is essential in the legal system because it helps ensure the parties get a fair trial.

Ensuring proper decorum means everyone involved in the proceeding respects the legal system and judiciary. While specific rules of decorum may vary by jurisdiction, some universal rules of decorum include the following:

  • Referring to the judge as "your honor"
  • Preventing disruptions at the trial court
  • Do not interrupt the judge
  • Only interrupt the opposing party if you have a legal objection to their statement (i.e., do not interrupt them simply because you disagree with their statement)

If you disrespect the judicial system, the judge can hold you in contempt. This may include a fine or a short jail sentence. So, it is important to respect the court system and all participants in the trial.

Ensure Proper Procedure and Introduction of Evidence

Another vital role judges have is ensuring the court and parties follow proper legal procedures. This includes making decisions on whether parties may introduce certain evidence. Like ensuring courtroom decorum, these duties ensure litigants get a fair trial.

You have likely seen a judge ensuring proper procedure in movies or TV shows. For instance, the following are all parts of a judge's responsibility to ensure a fair trial:

The judge's role in proper procedure also applies to all pretrial or preliminary hearings. The parties and court often resolve evidence issues before a trial begins. But sometimes, the judge has to make such decisions on the fly as they arise during a trial.

Trial Judges

If you file a civil case or the government files criminal charges against you, your case may result in a trial. Depending on your case, you may have a bench or a jury trial. This section describes the difference between the two and the judge's role in each.

Bench Trials

In a bench trial, a judge decides the issues of law and fact, and there is no jury. This means the parties only need to convince the judge that the law and facts are on their side and that they should prevail. The judge will decide the case on its merits after the parties present their cases.

Some cases automatically result in bench trials. For example, minor criminal matters like misdemeanors may get a bench trial. Other times, parties may waive the right to a jury trial and request a bench trial.

Parties may request a bench trial if they believe the case involves complex legal issues. A judge most likely has a better understanding of a case's legal issues than a jury of the litigants' peers. If a party believes the law is on their side, they may want the judge to decide their case.

A party may also want a bench trial if they believe the opposing party's side of the case paints a more sympathetic picture than theirs. For example, if the party believes a jury may consider sympathy more than they do the black letter law in the case, they may want the judge to decide the factual and legal issues. In other words, a bench trial may offer a more objective trier of fact than a jury trial.

Jury Trials

In a jury trial, the jury is the trier of fact. A jury usually consists of 12 jurors, although that number may vary by jurisdiction. The jury analyzes a case's facts and legal issues and gives a verdict. So, the parties must show enough evidence to the jury to convince them that their sides should win the case.

The judge in a jury trial acts as a neutral decision-maker on the evidence the jury can see. Like a referee in charge of a sporting event, the judge ensures the trial proceeds appropriately according to the rules and procedures.

When the parties dispute the facts, the judge will give the jury instructions about the law. The jury instructions help the jurors reach a verdict.

The trial judge's role and judicial conduct in a trial don't change, regardless of whether it is a civil or criminal trial. But different rules and procedures apply depending on whether the judge presides over a criminal or civil case.


A party generally has a right to appeal a trial court's judgment to a superior court. The procedure to request an appeal varies because of the differences in state laws and court systems. Generally, the procedure for appealing a decision in state or federal court is as follows:

  • State court: A party may appeal a trial court's judgment to the state's intermediate appellate court. They may then typically file an appeal to the state's highest court, usually a supreme court.
  • Federal court: A party may appeal from a U.S. District Court to a U.S. Court of Appeals. Then, they may appeal from the U.S. Court of Appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court.

If the defendant wins their criminal court case, the government can't appeal the decision to a higher court.

Judges have different roles in appeals than at the trial court level. This section describes the appellate judges' roles.

Appellate Court Judges

If a party appeals a case to an appellate court, a panel of three judges will review the lower court's decision. A larger panel may consider complex cases.

Parties generally can't show new evidence on appeal. Instead, the panel of judges generally reviews the lower court's record for legal errors.

Parties to an appeal may submit appellate briefs to the court. The party filing the appeal (the petitioner) tries to persuade the panel that the lower court committed legal errors and the panel should overturn the decision. The party responding to the appeal (the respondent) will try to persuade the panel to affirm the lower court's decision.

The judges will review the appellate briefs. Then, they may listen to the parties' arguments during oral arguments, which gives them a chance to ask the parties questions about the case.

After oral arguments, the judges will discuss the case. Once they decide, one of the judges will write the court's opinion. They will either affirm, reverse, or remand the case.

U.S. Supreme Court Justices

A party may appeal from a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals or their state's highest court to the U.S. Supreme Court. To do so, they must file a petition for certiorari. The U.S. Supreme Court gets about 7,000 petitions for certiorari per year. It decides to review about 100 cases per year. So, don't expect that the Supreme Court will review your case.

The Supreme Court consists of a chief justice and eight associate justices. When it grants a writ of certiorari (i.e., they decide to review a case), the parties must submit briefs to the Court. The Court will then hold oral arguments, like an appellate court.

After the parties give oral arguments, the justices will hold a conference to discuss and decide the case. Each justice may write an opinion if they see fit. Usually, a majority of justices will appoint one justice to write the Court's opinion. If a minority of justices disagree with the majority, they may choose to have a justice write the dissenting opinion.

Browse FindLaw's Supreme Court section for more information about the Court.

Contact an Attorney For More Information

Preparing for a trial can cause a lot of stress and anxiety. If you have a civil case, consider contacting a civil litigation attorney to help you prepare for trial or an appeal.

Or, contact a criminal defense attorney if you have a criminal case. If you represent yourself (pro se) and can't afford an attorney, you can ask the court to appoint a public defender for free.

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