It’s a rare attorney who has not at some time thought about what it would be like to be a judge, if not actually aspired to the role. But few who have not already served on the bench understand what that entails, both personally and professionally, or the judicial selection process.
If you are reading this, you likely have thought about being a judge. Maybe you have even submitted an application. You like the idea of sitting high on the bench in a black robe dispensing justice, but how much do you really know about what it is like to be a judge? And how much do you know about the process for selecting judges?
The image most have of a judge is overwhelmingly positive: stately, respected, wise, thoughtful, and powerful. To be sure, there are many reasons why you should at least consider becoming a judge—but there are also considerations that may give you pause.
The Great Parts
Here are the most compelling reasons why you may want to consider becoming a judge:
Making a difference. Many of you went to law school because you wanted to make a difference in peoples’ lives. If this is still your key motivator, you owe it to yourself to consider becoming a judge. There are two simple reasons. First, the numbers favor the judge role. As a lawyer, you likely see a fair number of people per week that you can help. As a judge, you will almost certainly see many more—the number of people you affect typically runs into the thousands.
Second, the effect you have on the people who come to court is enormous. Lawyers spend a lot of their time trying to persuade the judge to do something for their client; the judge actually decides. Simply put, judges yield tremendous power, and they use that power day in and day out to change peoples’ lives.
Instrument of justice. Every decent lawyer has a voice inside that drives her to want to do The Right Thing: to help people find justice. In practice, however, lawyers advocate for the client, whether or not that position lines up with The Right Thing. A lawyer’s duties as an advocate often get in the way of doing The Right Thing. Moreover, much of a lawyer’s time is taken up with reviewing documents or preparing responses—tasks that seem to have little to do with justice in the classic sense.
If you are a judge, it is your job to do The Right Thing. Every day, in every case, you have the opportunity—actually, the responsibility—to deliver justice. Granting compensation to the injured, punishing the deserving, giving someone a chance, or forcing someone to receive support and treatment they require—not surprisingly, it’s very satisfying to be the instrument of justice.
Satisfying job. A good way to evaluate how people like their jobs is to ask two questions: Do you find your job satisfying? and How often do people in your job leave?
The answers to both of these questions shed favorable light on the job of judge. In a recent study of trial court judges, over 90 percent of respondents reported being either very satisfied or satisfied with the work they do. Moreover, 90 percent plan to stay in their job until they retire. That retention rate speaks volumes about judges’ job satisfaction.
Endless variety. Variety is the spice of life and judges encounter more variety than one can imagine. Judges hear an endless variety of matters ranging from criminal, family, juvenile, mental health, and the menagerie that is civil cases. Within each of those case types are unique stories and situations. If you like variety, a judgeship is a great job to have.
Great schedule. Don’t get me wrong: judges work hard. But their schedules are not subject to the whims of clients, the deadlines imposed by many legal obligations, and the pressures associated with the hours-based billing system. Plus, you never have to worry about where your next case will come from.
To be sure, at times judges must work really hard to get out orders, to address emergencies, or to deal with something after hours (e.g., signing a warrant in the middle of the night). Impositions on a judge’s free time, however, are far less common than those faced by most lawyers. Those predictable hours, coupled with enviable vacation and legal holidays, make a judge’s schedule a favorable factor.
Lots of trials. The very best part of being a lawyer (for many) is going to trial. This is understandable: there are few jobs that offer the excitement, drama, and challenge of a trial. Regrettably, there are fewer and fewer trials for more and more lawyers.
One of the best parts about being a judge is that you have lots of trials.
And you have the best seat in the
house: right where you get to see all the drama unfold. If you are a trial junkie, being a trial court judge is a perfect job for you.
Impressive role. It may not matter to some people, but judgeships are still seen as highly respectable positions that represent the pinnacle achievement in the legal profession. People generally admire judges and treat them as special. One need not be vain to enjoy people’s respect.
The Hard Parts
Of course, no job is perfect. Being a judge is not for everyone.
Be candid with yourself—if you apply, you must be able to handle the hard parts of the role. If you don’t have the judicial disposition and skills—and many people don’t—you will be an unhappy disaster on the bench. If your inner reflections lead you to hesitate about applying, don’t do it.
Here are the most conspicuous drawbacks of the job that you should consider:
Dysfunction, tragedy, and pain. Many people forgo a career in medicine because they can’t stand the thought of dealing with sick and dying people day in and day out. If that is your reaction to the prospect of being a doctor or other heath care professional, you should think twice about being a judge.
Cases that come to court rarely involve good situations. Rather, they come to court because there is a problem that needs to be addressed. Most of those problems involve people whose lives are battered and broken, and who may have little chance of ever having a happy and productive life.
As a judge you will likely deal with:
- parents who have abused or killed their children;
- undeserving victims of crime whose lives have been destroyed by random violence;
- parents fighting each other with such rage and anger that they will emotionally cripple their innocent children;
- people who are unbelievably poor;
- children who are raped or killed;
- children who rape and kill;
- people who are ravaged by undeserved mental illness; and
- chemical dependency that destroys families and lives.
There are many, many more examples, but you get the point: You can be a judge only if you can make some inner peace with a professional life filled with others’ pain, tragedy, pathology, and dysfunction. Making that peace is not easy, and most judges find it even harder than it sounds.
Limited impact. Some people think that judges have practically unlimited power to make things better. No doubt, judges can make a life-changing (sometimes even lifesaving) difference in many cases. Unfortunately, a judge is often powerless to make a bad situation better.
For example, alcohol and drug abuse are at the core of many tragedies that judges encounter. But a judge has only limited ability to stop someone from abusing drugs or alcohol. Dependency on those substances is often so strong that the promises of treatment and the threat of punishment are not enough to prevent their ongoing use. You will see people who die because they can’t defeat their demons, and you will have been powerless to stop the tragedy.
In the all-too-common world of domestic abuse, as a judge you will see couples where one partner has badly beaten the other partner, only to have the beaten partner claim to be at fault. You will see that couple get back together and return with the victim beaten again. And again. Ultimately the victim may be beaten to death because she could not break that entrenched cycle of abuse. You will see all this coming, but will be unable to stop it.
Pressure to decide. Many think that judges have lots of time to make thoughtful decisions and to draft well-written orders. In reality, a flood of cases keeps you under constant pressure to make decisions quickly. With deadlines looming, you must decide, even though your decision is not as careful and as thoughtful as you would like. Though every judge does everything possible to give every case the time and attention it deserves, most judges wish they had more time to make really important decisions.
Harmful decisions. No one wants to be wrong. Yet, with the sheer number of decisions that judges make and the pressures that go with the job, you as a judge will inevitably make wrong decisions. Those decisions affect the most important parts of peoples’ lives, and you will have to live with knowing that innocent people are suffering because of your wrong decisions.
Judges do their best, but they sometimes:
- give custody of a child to an abusive parent;
- release someone on bail who kills or rapes another; or
- send an innocent person to prison.
Tragically, the list goes on and on.
It is a heavy responsibility even when you are right. But there is a special pain knowing that your wrong decision, even if based on the best information you had and your thoughtful judgment, caused an innocent person to suffer.
Pro se. Our legal system is the best in the world when it functions as designed, i.e., when professional advocates present each side of a case. But the system functions poorly when untrained people represent themselves in a legal proceeding. Attorneys need at least seven years of formal education and several years of practice to provide effective representation; is it any wonder that untrained people cannot effectively represent themselves?
The absence of lawyers from a case doesn’t make it go away. In fact, as a judge you handle far more cases that don’t have lawyers on both sides than you imagine. You have to wade right in and do your best to do justice. But it isn’t easy, and it isn’t satisfying. Indeed, pro se litigation from the judge’s perspective is like looking for justice in the dark: it is hard to find, and you often don’t know it even when you bump into it.
In many ways, it is even worse when only one side has a lawyer. In those situations, it often feels like you are watching a hunter clubbing a baby seal, with your job being to declare the hunter the victor and assess court costs against the seal. Needless to say, it is not a good feeling.
Budgetary pressures. You have seen the stories about how our legal system has been underfunded. They are all true. And the prognosis for the next few years is at best uncertain.
What that means to you as a judge is that you’ll struggle to find the resources you need to do your job well: There will be limited legal resources to help you get your courtroom and chambers work done, few resources among your justice partners, and few administrative people. Suffice it to say that it can be disheartening to work in a resource-starved environment.
Professional isolation. You can swear that you won’t change when you become a judge—and maybe you won’t—but things change when you become a judge. Friends you knew as fellow lawyers will call you “Your Honor” or “Judge,” and you will feel uncomfortable. It will seem that lawyers find you more interesting and funnier than before, and you probably will suspect it is because of your position. Depending on where you live, many in your community may act the same. Judges in smaller communities recount the awkward experience of running into people they recently put in jail.
In sum, you will no longer belong to the same social circle, and least not in the same way. You may retain your former close friends, but making new friends will be harder. A certain amount of professional isolation is to be expected.
Feeling underpaid. Judges make a lot of money (roughly $129,000 at the state district court level) compared to the average person, so it is hard to say that judges are underpaid. But you will encounter lawyers who earn many times that amount, who can afford to send their kids to private schools, have expensive new suits, vacation homes, and expensive cars. When surrounded by people who make that much money, it is easy to feel like you deserve a level of financial comfort that you will never be able to attain as a judge. It is not a good feeling.
Public criticism. If you have picked up a newspaper lately there is a decent chance you have read about a judge who made a bad decision, or who acted badly in the courtroom. Indeed, it seems that “Judge Does Something Stupid or Mean” stories are easy to write, always received by an eager audience, and draw scathing comments from mostly anonymous readers.
It really hurts if you are the newsmaker in that kind of story, especially when the story is incomplete, unfair, or unbalanced. No matter how hard you try, you are always at risk of being portrayed on unflattering terms in public media. Worse, judicial ethical constraints almost always prevent you from defending or explaining yourself.
Opportunities relinquished. The work of a lawyer in the courtroom is special, and provides a unique challenge and a thrill. It appeals to one who thrives in the competitive atmosphere of the courtroom. To be a judge, you have to realize that you will never again try a case.
You give up more than your courtroom work. Lawyers tend to be very active and involved in their communities. Although one’s community spirit may survive appointment to the bench, the opportunities to be involved shrink significantly. You can no longer advise clients, you cannot be on many boards, you cannot do pro bono, you generally cannot fundraise, and you cannot do many other similar things you take for granted as a lawyer.
Should You Apply?
If you have read this far, you are probably still considering applying to be a judge. The application process is set forth below, but first there are a couple of practical things you need to know.
One of the things few understand about the application process is the cost in doing so. The cost comes in two forms: the personal and the professional costs.
Personal costs. Most applicants tell themselves that it won’t be a big deal if they don’t get appointed. What most people don’t realize, however, is the depth of their emotional investment in a favorable outcome.
People understandably become invested emotionally in the process. Each applicant solicits letters of recommendation. Those letters invariably speak of the many, many great qualities of the candidate. Reading even a few of those flattering letters leaves the candidate believing he or she is uniquely suited for the bench and highly likely to succeed in the process.
Of course, there are many others who are applying for each position who have similar qualifications and glowing recommendations. The end result is that most people who apply don’t get appointed. And just as in every other aspect of life that matters to you, rejection hurts.
Professional costs. Even though many of your colleagues and clients may admire your gumption in applying for a judgeship, they might see your efforts as interfering with your duties as their business partner or legal representative.
The basis for such concerns can easily be understood. For starters, you have for all practical purposes told colleagues and clients that you want to leave them. At a basic emotional level, that can be seen as disloyal and hurtful. Apart from the emotional impact, there are logistical problems that your possible departure creates. Your client may choose to hedge herself by starting the transition to a different lawyer. Similarly, your partner may be reluctant to ask you to work on his cases since it is a hassle to bring in another lawyer to step into your role if you get appointed.
Navigating the Process
So you have decided to apply. Now you need to know how the actual process itself works.
Who does the appointing? When a judge retires or resigns from a trial court position in Minnesota, the governor has the statutory responsibility of appointing a successor to that judge. The same holds true when a judge retires or resigns from the Minnesota Supreme Court or court of appeals. Before the governor makes an appointment to the Minnesota trial court bench, however, the Minnesota Commission on Judicial Selection has the statutory responsibilities for recruiting, recommending, and aiding in the appointment.
What is the Judicial Selection Commission? Minnesota Statute Chapter 480B, passed by the legislature in 1989, created the Commission on Judicial Selection. The commission’s express purpose is to recruit and consider applicants and make recommendations to the governor for any Minnesota trial court vacancies that occur during the term of a state judge due to death, retirement, or resignation as well as, upon request by the governor, for vacancies in appellate court positions. In addition to addressing vacancies in the state’s ten judicial districts, the commission is engaged in the selection and recommendation of judges to the Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals (WCCA) when a vacancy occurs during the term of a judge. Some governors also use the at-large members of the commission to make recommendations for appointments to the appellate courts, although under Minnesota law they are not required to do so.
Who are its members? The commission comprises 49 members statewide, both attorney and nonattorney members. The governor appoints 27 of the members, while the Minnesota Supreme Court appoints the other 22. Of those 49, nine serve in an at-large capacity: seven of them appointed by the governor and two appointed by the Minnesota Supreme Court. The governor designates one of these nine as chair of the commission. At-large members participate in the recommendation for judgeships across all Minnesota state trial courts. Lee Sheehy, region & communities program director at the McKnight Foundation, is currently chair.
The remaining 40 members of the commission represent specific judicial districts, with four drawn from each of the state’s ten districts. These district members address only vacancies that occur in the judicial district from which they are appointed. At-large members participate with the district members in all ten judicial districts. The governor and the Minnesota Supreme Court each appoint two of the four district member representatives in each judicial district.
The commission includes both attorneys and nonattorneys. Two attorneys and two nonattorneys represent each judicial district. Among the at-large members, at least three must be nonattorneys. Thus, the commission receives input from outside the legal community. Each member shares the governor’s four-year term of office.
To ensure that prospective applicants and the public clearly understand the application process and commission procedures, the commission prepares an official outline of procedures that is filed with the appellate courts and the secretary of state and can be found on the governor’s website (www.governor.state.mn.us). The outline details the procedures for applying for a district court judgeship in the case of a vacancy. Basic information about the members of the commission can also be found on the governor’s website.
Are diverse candidates sought? Yes. During any judicial vacancy, the number of applicants may vary widely. Thus, the commission is not solely reactive but proactively seeks out promising candidates to fill vacancies.
These recruiting efforts seek not only to find the best talent but also to ensure that Minnesota’s judicial community includes many diverse voices, experiences, and points of view. Just as including attorney and nonattorney members on the commission helps ensure that its perspective is broadly representative of the general public and responsive to it, the goal is to achieve a similar ideal in Minnesota’s courts. That means encouraging qualified candidates of varying ethnicities, genders, and social and professional backgrounds to consider pursuing a judicial position whenever a vacancy occurs.
As Minnesota’s population has diversified in recent years, diversity on the bench is no longer an option—it is a necessity; as such, it is one of the foremost priorities of the commission. Minnesota’s courts increasingly need to be positioned to understand the backgrounds and the points of view of all the different citizens who will stand before them.
Actively working to achieve this goal, the commission is constantly seeking opportunities for commission members to attend and speak at events that bring together certain communities of color within the legal profession. There they outline the work of the commission, highlight the importance of diversity in the judicial system, and encourage attendees to consider a judicial career. These events also enable commission members to network and forge strong connections with influential members within diverse segments of the legal community.
Annually the commission files with the Governor’s Office a statistical tabulation of the ages, genders, and races represented in the judicial applicant pool. This helps the commission identify further areas of opportunity and communities that are not being adequately included in the judicial application process, and subsequently in the judicial system.
What is the process like? The application process is just as rigorous and complex, if not more so than the process a company takes to fill a job opening.
The Minnesota Supreme Court is the first party to act in this process. Upon a vacancy, it decides if or how the vacancy will be filled. Depending on the vacancy and the needs of the judiciary, the Minnesota Supreme Court could abolish the position, continue it in its current chambers within its current judicial district, or transfer the position to another judicial district. Once this determination is made, the chief justice sends a certification order to the governor. Once the governor receives this notification, the governor notifies the chair of the Commission on Judicial Selection within ten days. If a vacancy to be filled remains, a rigorous and open process begins.
The commission first issues a public vacancy announcement to notify prospective applicants and the public that the call for applications has opened. The announcement provides all the important logistical and administrative details, including the nature of the vacancy, the application process, where applications are available, and the application deadline.
The message is widely distributed to attorney associations in the district where the vacancy will occur (or statewide in the case of appellate courts) and also to local news media. The announcement is also sent to members of the judiciary, state and district court administrators, minority bar associations, Minnesota Women Lawyers, and countless others who have requested notification. Many attorneys personally request to be notified by telephone or email, and the commission staff responds promptly and discreetly to any of these inquiries. Any attorney can be added to the notification list by contacting Andrew Olson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
After the call for applications has remained open for three to four weeks, the governor’s office sends all qualified applications and related letters of recommendation to the nine at-large members and the applicable four district members of the Commission on Judicial Selection. The commission begins a thorough review of the applications and prepares to conduct interviews and make recommendations for the vacancy.
What does the commission look for? The application form is lengthy and substantial, and is designed to elicit key information regarding qualities that the governor and the commission believe make a great judge: integrity, maturity, legal knowledge and judicial temperament, ability and experience, diligence, and a sense of fairness. Consideration is also given to health, if job-related, and community service experience.
The commission also looks beyond what the applicant says to consider others’ views. Applicants must submit the names of judges and adversaries with whom they have been recently involved in any litigated matters. They are also encouraged to submit reference letters from persons who know the candidate well and who can attest to the candidate’s qualifications for being a judge. Applicants are welcome to research the needs of the district court and the role and demands of the vacant seat.
Commission members thoroughly review each candidate’s application and supporting materials and reach a consensus on who should be interviewed by the commission. While the criteria for evaluating judicial candidates are set out in statute, generally commission members look for candidates with:
- substantial relevant legal experience, including trial experience;
- personality traits that will translate into excellent judicial demeanor, e.g., patience, good listening skills, lack of arrogance, and proven ability to be fair and impartial, among many others;
- the ability to work with diverse populations;
- a strong work ethic;
- the proven ability to make tough decisions; and
- the ability to remain focused and engaged in even the smallest of matters (there are no small matters for litigants in court).
The number of candidates interviewed typically depends on how many vacancies are available in that district. District members of the commission conduct an informal background check on each candidate to be interviewed, so that more detailed feedback can be provided during the deliberations and any significant issues can be discovered before the interviews.
What is the timing of the interview process? The commission must hold a meeting to interview candidates not less than 21 days and not more than 42 days from receiving the initial notice of the vacancy. Factoring in the three- to four-week application period and the review time that follows leaves little time to waste. The meetings are typically held in the district and the county where the vacancy is to be filled. Whenever multiple vacancies are occurring within one district, they may be considered simultaneously in a consolidated meeting.
What does the commission look for? The commission interviews all of its selected candidates in one meeting, in a rigorous but speedy process, during which each candidate is interviewed for about 15 to 20 minutes. This feels a little like a really important speed date; given all the information that has already been gathered on each candidate. However, the time is more than sufficient to give the commission a very good sense of the candidate and his or her suitability to be a judge.
As with most job interviews, there are more chances to do poorly than to do exceedingly well. Surefire ways to disappoint the commission are to:
- act like you deserve the job;
- be unprepared for basic questions (e.g., “Why do you want to be a judge?”) or
- ramble on so that the commission is unable to ask their questions.
There is no secret to impressing the commission. Just follow the basic rules of good interviewing, such as:
- Be prepared;
- Be concise. Don’t try to say too much, too quickly. Time often runs out before all the questions are asked and answered; and
- Be comfortable. If you can’t handle the pressure of an interview, the commission will likely conclude that you can’t handle the pressure of the position.
Following the interviews, the commission discusses the candidates and ultimately votes by secret ballot on whom to recommend to the governor. The statute requires that the commission recommend three to five finalists to the governor for each vacancy. In the case of multiple vacancies during one application period, the same candidate may be recommended for more than one position.
What can recommended candidates expect? You might think that following an in-depth interview with the commission members the process would be drawing to a close, but much work takes place following that initial interview. First, full background checks are done for the recommended candidates, and, assuming everything clears, the names of the finalists are then made public.
Finalists also interview with the governor. The statute does not require this, but Minnesota’s recent governors have chosen to do so prior to making an appointment.
The interviews with the governor typically happen in the governor’s office and may include the chair of the selection commission, the governor’s chief of staff, and the governor’s general counsel. The governor looks at the same factors as the commission looks at, asking many of the same type of questions. Most people who have been through an interview with the governor report it to be a surprisingly pleasant and comfortable event.
After vetting the candidates, the governor announces the appointment. The governor may appoint a judge who was not among those recommended by the Commission on Judicial Selection, but this is increasingly rare.
The appointment is announced via a public news release. At that point people come out of the woodwork to congratulate you on your attaining the highest achievement available to those in your profession.
Jay Quam was appointed a Hennepin County District Court judge in July 2006. Prior to his appointment, he was a litigator for 17 years at Fredrikson & Byron. He graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1988.
Lee Sheehy is an attorney employed as the region & communities program director at the McKnight Foundation, where he has served for the past five years. He currently chairs Minnesota’s Commission on Judicial Selection.