In the United States criminal justice system, judges are involved in tasks which actually occur before, during, and after the proper courtroom trials. The first official task being performed by a judge is approving and signing applications for arrest and search warrants needed by police officers before they could undertake legal arrests and search and seizure proceedings against persons suspected of committing crimes. In approving warrants, the judge is duty-bound to exercise prudence and judiciousness in determining whether there is reasonable proof to justify the need for such arrest and search warrants. After an arrest has been carried out, the next duty of a judge is to preside over a hearing which would decide whether to allow a suspect to post bail to secure his or her temporary liberty or to revoke an existing bail when a suspect has been proven to have violated certain conditions set down when the bail was granted (Meyer and Grant, 2003).
Before the proper trial could be conducted, a judge first presides over a preliminary hearing where the justification for a proper trial is determined based on the evidence available. The judge makes this determination after hearing the sides of both the prosecution and the defense panels. After the preliminary hearing, the judge then hears the pre-trial motions presented by both sides. Pre-trial motions include motions to exclude or include evidence as well as the venue of the trial. Next is the plea bargaining where the judge is made to approve any agreement for plea bargaining which the prosecution and the defense lawyers could come up (Meyer and Grant, 2003). In plea bargaining, a prosecutor negotiates with a defendant for the purpose of convincing the latter to plead guilty to the charge in order to resolve the case without bringing it to trial. This is being done in cases where the guilt of the defendant is already beyond doubt so that the volume of court cases could be reduced. It has become an accepted legal practice in the country ever since the amount of criminal cases has reached a level which left the criminal justice system – particularly the courts and the public prosecutor’s office – so overloaded that trying every case has already become a virtual impossibility. Aside from reducing the load of the courts and relieving public prosecutors of some of their work, the practice also affords government significant savings in terms of the time spent for such cases as well as the costs incurred in bringing such cases to trial (Larson, 2000).
If the judge fails to approve the plea bargaining agreement, the case goes to the trial proper. First, though, if it is a jury trial, the judge should first preside over a process to select the members of the jury. It is the duty of the judge to ascertain that both the prosecution and the defense panels choose impartial jurists so that the case could be judged objectively and free of any prejudice. Then the trial proper is presided over by the judge. During the trial, it is the duty of the judge to act as a referee between the two parties, deciding whether objections raised by either the prosecutor or the defense attorney should be “sustained” or “overruled.” In other words, it is the judge who decides which questions should be allowed to be asked of the witnesses presented by both sides. In effect, the duty of the judge is to assure the proper conduct of the trial. After the two sides have rested their cases, the judge then gives the necessary instructions to the members of the jury, reminding them of their specific duties and responsibilities as far as determining the guilt or innocence of the accused is concerned. In case a guilty verdict is handed down the judge assumes the role of a “sentencing agent.” This duty requires the judge to determine what penalty should be the most appropriate for the crime committed. Many judges consider this role to be a very difficult one. Some say that sentencing compels them to impose the penalties required by law even if they believe that such penalties are unjust because of their harshness. Others blame themselves for destroying families, leaving behind unattended minors after incarcerating the guilty or sending them to their death. Sentencing is not the end of a judge’s involvement in a case. There are appeals to contend with, both from the prosecution and the defense panels. Appeals are usually made when new pieces of evidence are found by either party or charges of impropriety or mishandling of the case are hurled against the presiding judge. In the case of an appeal, the judge of an appellate court is now involved (Meyer and Grant, 2003).
An effective judge is one who adheres to the “Code of Conduct for United States Judges” which laid down seven rules. Conversely, any judge who violates this code of conduct could never be an effective judge. Rule number one specifically states that “A Judge Should Uphold the Integrity and Independence of the Judiciary.” This means that a good judge should always be honest and should maintain his or her independence in deciding cases. The second rule says that an effective judge should always act with propriety, and should not allow anybody – even close friends and relatives – to exert any influence on him or her. Third, he or she should perform his or her responsibilities with impartiality and diligence. In other words, he or she should treat everybody equally in the eyes of the law and should not reject any case assigned to his or her court. He or she should also adhere to the letters of the law in deciding cases assigned to him or her (Code of Conduct for United States Judges, 1973).
Fourth, an effective judge should take part in any “extra-judicial activities” which are meant to enrich the legal system and improve the way justice is administered in the country. The fifth rule serves to regulate the fourth canon. While a judge should be involved in meaningful “extra-judicial activities,” he or she should see to it that such activities would not hurt his or her impartiality and independence or should not clash with his or her duties. The sixth rule prohibits a judge from receiving any undeserved or unreasonable compensation for other services like “extra-judicial” or “law-related activities” because it would look improper and inappropriate. Moreover, all such compensation received should be reported promptly, properly, and accurately. Finally, an effective judge should not engage in any political undertaking. If he or she elects to do so, he or she should first resign from his or her position (Code of Conduct for United States Judges, 1973).
Different states have adopted different approaches or proposals on how to deal with ineffective judges. They have been making use of surveys and performance evaluations to rate the accomplishments of their judges. Proposals ranged from recommending to have them voted out (Reno) to firing, imprisonment, and reduction in their term limits (Colorado). At least fifteen states have already been conducting performance evaluations and submitting the results to the decision-makers in the state, including the voters, for appropriate action (Elliott, 2008).
Code of Conduct for United States Judges. (1973). Retrieved September 14, 2008 from
Elliott, D. (2008). PERFORMANCE REVIEWS: Evaluation of judges catches on. Retrieved
September 14, 2008 from http://www.lvrj.com/news/26219089.html
Larson, A. (2000). How Does “Plea Bargaining” Work? ExpertLaw. Retrieved September
14, 2008 from http://www.expertlaw.com/library/criminal/plea_bargains.html
Meyer, J.F. and Grant, D.R. (2003). The Courts in Our Criminal Justice System. Prentice