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Judges and Judicial Administration – Journalist’s Guide

The Judiciary is an independent branch of government. Here is how judges are appointed and how they administer the Third Branch.

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Federal JudgesFederal Court OrganizationJudicial AdministrationCircuit Judicial CouncilsChief JudgesJudicial Disciplinary Process


Federal Judges

Article III of the Constitution governs the appointment, tenure, and payment of Supreme Court justices, and federal circuit and district judges. These judges, often referred to as “Article III judges,” are nominated by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.  Article III states that these judges “hold their office during good behavior,” which means they have a lifetime appointment, except under very limited circumstances. Article III judges can be removed from office only through impeachment by the House of Representatives and conviction by the Senate. The Constitution also provides that judges’ salaries cannot be reduced while they are in office. Article III judicial salaries are not affected by geography or length of tenure. All appellate judges receive the same salary, no matter where they serve. The same is true for district court judges.

Article III judges can be removed from office only through impeachment by the House of Representatives and conviction by the Senate.

Find brief biographies of all Article III judges since the nation’s founding.  

Bankruptcy Judges

Bankruptcy judges are judicial officers of the district court who preside exclusively over bankruptcy proceedings. They are not Article III judges and are not appointed by the President. They are appointed to renewable 14-year terms by a majority of the judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals for their circuit.

The bankruptcy judge appointment process is set by Judicial Conference policy, in accordance with the Bankruptcy Amendments and Federal Judgeship Act. Unlike Article III judges, bankruptcy judges must meet eligibility criteria, including being a member of the bar in good standing. Circuits may appoint a merit selection panel, consisting of judges and other legal professionals, to review and recommend candidates for appointment.  

Bankruptcy judges receive the same annual salary, no matter where they serve or how many years they have served.

Magistrate Judges

Magistrate judges also are not Article III judges. By federal statute, they are appointed by a majority of the U.S. district judges in each judicial district for a renewable term of eight years. In addition, there are a small number of part-time magistrate judges who serve four-year terms.

The job title is magistrate judge, not magistrate.

Like bankruptcy judges, magistrate judges must meet specified eligibility criteria, including at least five years as a member in good standing of a state's or territory’s highest court bar. They also must be vetted by a merit selection panel that consists of lawyers and non-lawyers from the community.

The precise duties of magistrate judges vary somewhat from district to district, but some duties are common to all courts. Magistrate judges authorize search and arrest warrants, and they hear preliminary matters in felony criminal cases, such as conducting probable cause hearings and deciding whether to set bail or order pretrial detention. As result, a magistrate judge is usually the first federal judicial officer a defendant sees following arrest or indictment.

Magistrate judges hear cases involving petty offenses committed on federal lands, but felony trials are heard only by district judges.

In most districts, magistrate judges handle pretrial motions and hearings in civil cases. While most civil cases are tried by district judges, magistrate judges also may preside over civil trials if all parties consent.

Like other federal judges, all magistrate judges are paid the same salary, regardless of where they serve or their years of service.

Senior Judges

Senior judges are Article III judges who have met age and service requirements set by federal statute. Judges are eligible (but not required) to take senior status if they are at least 65 years old and have served at least 15 years on the bench, or any combination of age and years of service that equals 80. Regardless of age, judges must serve at least 10 years to qualify for senior status.

Senior judges continue to draw their salary but may choose to handle a reduced caseload. They are required to handle at least one-fourth of the caseload, or other duties, of an active judge to qualify for future salary increases. By taking senior status, even if maintaining a full caseload, a judge creates a vacancy on the court, to be filled by the nomination and confirmation process.

Because there is no mandatory retirement age for Article III judges, there is no requirement that they take senior status. Many continue to carry heavy workloads, and senior judges handle about 20 percent of the total district and appellate caseload.

Visiting Judges

Visiting judges, like senior judges, can help a court stay on top of its caseload. Visiting judges have long provided significant assistance to courts they visit. Federal law provides that Article III judges may sit by designation and assignment in any other federal court having a need for their services. They provide temporary assistance not only when a court’s own judges must disqualify themselves, but also to help meet the caseload needs arising from vacancies, lack of sufficient judgeships, specific emergencies, and other workload imbalances.

Circuit chief judges must authorize intracircuit assignments, which allow judges to sit with another court within their circuit, and the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court must authorize intercircuit assignments, which allow a judge to sit in a circuit other than his or her home circuit.

Federal Court Organization

Federal courts have considerable autonomy. Each court has its own set of local rules.

The federal Judiciary was established by Article III of the Constitution, and the organization of district and appellate courts is set out in Title 28 of the United States Code.

In addition, federal judges and lawyers who practice in federal court follow the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure, and Federal Rules of Evidence, which establish the general procedural requirements for litigating cases in federal courts. The rules are available at Current Rules of Practice & Procedure.

But federal courts have considerable autonomy. Each appellate, district, and bankruptcy court has its own set of local rules, addressing procedural matters not uniformly governed by federal statute, Judicial Conference policy, or the Federal Rules of Procedure. In some jurisdictions, individual judges also have a set of rules that govern cases in their courtrooms. Local rules and individual judges' rules are posted on court websites.

Judicial Administration

The Judiciary is a separate and independent branch of government. By statute, national Judiciary administrative policies are set by the Judicial Conference of the United States, which is made up of 26 judges, with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presiding. The Judicial Conference meets twice a year. The meetings are not open to the public, but proceedings of the meetings are published and a news release is issued following each session. Find these resources.

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, located in Washington, D.C., is the national administrative arm of the Judiciary, providing a broad array of professional, administrative, and program support services to judges and court staff. The Administrative Office’s Public Affairs Office, (202) 502-2600, is a central point of contact for the news media. The Federal Judicial Center, also located in Washington, is the Judiciary’s research and education agency.

The Supreme Court has its own public information and administrative offices. The PIO number is (202) 479-3050. Learn more about judicial administration.

Circuit Judicial Councils

Every circuit has a circuit judicial council, which has a number of responsibilities relating to circuit-wide policies. The relevant statute provides the council with authority to “make all necessary and appropriate orders for the effective and expeditious administration of justice within its circuit.” In addition to the chief judge, the council consists of an equal number of appellate and district judges. Read more details about the circuit judicial councils.

Chief Judges

All appellate and district courts have chief judges. As provided by statute, the position is held by the longest-serving active judge from among those judges who are 64 years old or younger, have served for one year or more on the federal bench, and have not previously served as chief judge. The chief judge serves for a term of seven years or to age 70, whichever comes first, and handles budgetary and administrative matters that do not require the attention of all the judges. These include oversight of the senior court staff.

Chief judges can be good contacts for journalists, since they often serve as spokespeople for their courts regarding administrative matters.

Chief judges of courts of appeals have some additional authorities specified by statute. For example, to ensure the smooth and timely administration of cases, they may temporarily reassign district or appellate judges to other courts within a circuit, or ask the Chief Justice to authorize the use of visiting judges from other circuits. 

Judicial Disciplinary Process

By federal statute, any person can file a complaint alleging that a judge has engaged in “conduct prejudicial to the effective and expeditious administration of the business of the courts,” or that a mental or physical disability makes a judge “unable to discharge all the duties” of being a judge. Learn more about the Judicial Conduct and Disability process, including the rules relating to conduct and disability complaints, a graphical overview of the process, and frequently asked questions. In addition, every U.S. court website has a complaint form and additional information on how to file a complaint in that particular circuit. The complaint process is not for people who are dissatisfied with a particular judge’s decision.

The chief judge of a circuit receives any misconduct complaints involving judges in his or her circuit, conducts a preliminary review, and may dismiss the complaint if it lacks grounds for further action. Either the complainant or the affected judge may appeal the chief judge’s order to the circuit judicial council.

The chief judge also may appoint a special committee of judges to investigate the allegations and submit a report, including any recommendations, to the circuit judicial council. The council has a number of options, including dismissing the complaint or concluding that the judge who was the subject of the complaint has taken corrective action.

While it is not common, the council can take disciplinary action, including private or public censure or reprimand, and temporary withholding of cases from the judge. If the council concludes that the judge engaged in conduct that might constitute grounds for impeachment, the council must refer the complaint to the Judicial Conference. Under certain circumstances, a judge may submit a petition for review to the Judicial Conference Committee on Judicial Conduct and Disability. This committee reviews council orders for errors of law, clear errors of fact, or abuse of discretion.

If the Judicial Conference finds possible grounds for impeachment, it submits a report to the House of Representatives. Only Congress has the authority to remove an Article III judge. This is done through a vote of impeachment by the House and a trial and conviction by the Senate. As of September 2017, only 15 federal judges have been impeached, and only eight have been convicted. Three others resigned before completion of impeachment proceedings. A summary of federal judicial impeachments is available at the Federal Judicial Center’s website.

By law and the related rules for judicial misconduct and disability complaints, consideration of a complaint is confidential. When final action has been taken on a complaint and it is no longer subject to review, courts of appeals place orders entered by the chief judge and the judicial council on the circuit court’s website.

The Committee on Judicial Conduct and Disability similarly publishes all orders constituting final action on a complaint. The committee’s orders are available at Judicial Conduct and Disability Orders.

Statistics relating to judicial misconduct complaints can be found in Table 10 and Table S-22 of the annual Judicial Business report.