05 May What You Should Know About Judges and What They Do
When people call our office, it’s because they need help. They’re afraid of losing their homes to foreclosure, have been harmed and are considering a lawsuit or want to know the answer to any number of legal questions.
Calling an attorney can, by itself, be a difficult step for many people. Many of our clients have never been part of a lawsuit, have never filed for bankruptcy, and have, outside of paying for a speeding ticket, never even come close to standing before a judge in a courtroom. They often know very little about the legal process, and that sense of being a fish out of water can be a significant source of stress.
Getting a better understanding of the legal process can be a valuable step, and can help alleviate a lot of the worry that many clients feel about the legal process.
So, let’s take a look at what a judge does, and doesn’t do, in a legal case.
Can I call the judge to tell her my side of things?
The judge cannot talk to either side in a lawsuit, and parties (including their attorneys) can generally only communicate with the judge in court at hearings where the other side is present.
The Trier of Law
One of a judge’s primary roles in any case is to be the trier of law. For example, let’s say an attorney is questioning a witness during a trial. The attorney asks a question and the other side’s attorney objects. It’s the judge’s job to decide whether the objection the attorney raised has a legal basis. If the judge thinks the objection has merit, she will sustain the objection. If she thinks it is baseless, she will overrule it.
Such objections, and other questions about the law, commonly come up during a trial or throughout the legal process. It’s the judge’s job to consider these questions and make decisions about them.
The Trier of Fact
In some trials, the two sides argue in front of a judge and jury. In other trials there is no jury, only a judge. Judge-only trials are known as bench trials, and these, the judge is also responsible for determining what the facts are.
Is a witness’s testimony believable? Did one side meet its obligation to present facts that support its position? These questions are up to the jury to decide in a jury trial, and the judge to decide in a bench trial.
For example, in many disputes between businesses, the case is tried in front of a judge, not a jury. In such cases it’s up to the judge to determine what happened, as well as decide how the law applies to the facts.
The Peace Keeper
Judges also have a responsibility to ensure the trial process proceeds smoothly and orderly. Every courtroom hearing or trial has to operate under a set of pre-established procedures or courtroom rules. Though the exact procedures differ slightly depending on the type of case or court involved, it’s the judge’s duty to ensure that both sides comply with these procedures. In short, the judge must keep order in the court.
The Jury’s Teacher
When a judge presides over a jury trial, it’s the judge’s job to give the jury instructions about the case and the legal standards they have to use. For example, in a criminal case, the judge will instruct the jury on what legal terms such as “reasonable doubt” means.
It’s important to note, however, that judges are not there to help either side prepare or presents its case. Judges have to remain impartial. They cannot give either side of a lawsuit, called litigants or parties, legal advice, or show any kind of preference for one side or another. Even if one side constantly makes mistakes or does something wrong, it’s not the judge’s place to give guidance or advice to the litigants.
In our law practice, we work with judges in bankruptcy court, in state and federal trial courts, and in state and federal courts of appeal. Bankruptcy judges will oversee a case from beginning to end and make whatever legal decisions are necessary to resolve your case. State and federal trial judges oversee lawsuits through trial. In federal court, the same judge will oversee a case from beginning to end, while in state court, different judges make decisions until the case goes to trial.
After a case goes to trial and a court makes a final ruling, one side or another might appeal the case. An appeal asks a different court, called an appeals court, to rule on one or more specific legal points. Appeals essentially ask appellate judges to decide if there was a legal mistake during the trial.
Appeals courts are very different than trial courts. They never involve juries, aren’t about determining what the facts are, and aren’t trials. Appellate courts only consider legal arguments. They read written appeals and hear oral arguments from both sides of a case, then make rulings that answer the legal questions raised.
It’s natural to have questions about the legal process. It’s natural to feel overwhelmed by legal terminology, or to feel intimidated when you stand before a judge. You should always feel comfortable to ask your attorney questions, and know that they hold your concerns in confidence. Your attorney will provide you with advice based on our experience and knowledge, and stand beside you throughout every stage of the legal process.