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What are the duties of trial judges in the legal system?
The trial judge plays the following roles in the judicial process:
- Applying Procedural Law – The judge marshals the proceeding and presentation of evidence in accordance with procedural law. In this capacity, she observes and applies constitutional limitations and guarantees of due process of law. This includes applying procedural law, such as the admission of evidence at trial.
- Applying Substantive Law – The judge identifies applicable rules of law to apply in each case. In essence, the judge tells the jury what law to apply when trying the defendant’s conduct. This is commonly known as instructing or “charging the jury”.
- Role as Fact-Finder – In some cases, the parties are not entitled to a jury trial. As such, the trial judge may also serve as the finder of fact (the typical role of the jury). A judge often assumes this role in lower-level courts or when the defendant requests trial by judge alone. For example, the judge assumes the role of fact finder in traffic or small claims courts.
- Applying Equity – Equity is the inherent power of a judge to act in accordance with principles of fairness or justice when the law does not provide an adequate remedy through money damages. Equity allows the judge to order parties to take actions to achieve a fair and just result.
To give a practical explanation, the trial judge serves a role similar to a referee in a sports game.
Discussion: Some analogies compare the trial judge to a referee in a sporting match. Why do you think this is an adequate or inadequate comparison? Why do you think that some defendants will request that a judge serve as fact finder in a given case?
- The analogy offers adequate comparison. Just like a referee the judge needs to ensure that the atmosphere is conducive for the parties involved in a case. She orchestrates the presentation of evidence and makes certain all court rules are followed. The judge has to be impartial so as to ensure that he or she has confidence of both parties. Those who make legal arguments that are too difficult to understand or would not resonate clearly with jurors may prefer the judge to serve as fact finder. This is also the case when it is likely that a jury would feel sorry for a plaintiff or find a defendant disagreeable.
Practice Question: Lisa is a superior court judge in Alabama. In a criminal trial, the defendant requests a trial by judge alone and agrees to forego her right to a jury trial. Lisa is concerned that serving as fact-finder in the case would cause issues for appeal and denies the defendant’s request. During the trial, the defense counsel makes a motion to exclude from evidence a confession signed by the defendant. Lisa overrules the motion and allows introduction of the confession to the jury. At the end of the presentation of evidence, Lisa rejects the defense counsel’s proposed jury instruction and delivers to the jury her own explanation of the substantive law to be applied to the facts. Explain how these activities fit within the core functions of a trial court judge.
- As judge, Lisa must hear all motions made to the court. Here, the defendant requested that Lisa act as fact finder. While acting as fact finder is within her authority if the defendant so requests, she did not believe this procedural approach was appropriate under the circumstances and denied the motion. During the presentation of evidence, Lisa had to make the determination of whether or not to allow the presentation of specific evidence to the jury. In this situation, she determined that no procedural laws justified exclusion of the defendant’s confession. Lisa is also tasked with providing the applicable law to the jury. It is very common for the plaintiff and defendant to request specific instructions to the jury. Lisa made the decision to present the law to the jury that she believed was the correct and accurate explanation of the law. All of these are routine functions of the trial judge.
Joy, Peter A., A Judge’s Duty to Do Justice: Assuring the Accused’s Right to the Effective Assistance of Counsel (February 7, 2018). Washington University in St. Louis Legal Studies Research Paper No. 18-02-01; Hofstra Law Review, Vol. 46, No. 139, 2017. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3119971 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3119971
Stewart, Hamish, The Trial Judge’s Duty to Give Reasons for Judgment in Criminal Cases (2009). Canadian Criminal Law Review, Vol. 14, No. 1, pp. 19-35, 2009. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1639124