5.7. Courtroom Players: Judges and Court Staff

Lore Rutz-Burri and Kate McLean

The Courtroom Workgroup

In their 1977 book, Felony Justice: An organizational analysis of criminal courts, James Eisenstein and Herbert Jacob coined the term “courtroom workgroup.” [1] This term specifically refers to the cooperative working relationship between prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges (as opposed to the adversarial relationship that the public might expect) to efficiently resolve most of the cases in the criminal courts. This chapter more generally uses the term to include all the individuals working in the criminal courts—judges, attorneys, and the variety of court staff.

The accusatory phase (the pre-trial phase) and adjudicatory phase (the trial phase) of the criminal justice process include individuals who regularly work together in the trial courts. The prosecutor files the accusatory instrument called either an information or an indictment, and represents the state in plea bargaining, on pretrial motions, during the trial, and in the sentencing phase. The defense attorney represents the defendant after charges have been filed, through the pre-trial process, in a trial, and during sentencing, and maybe on the appeal as well. Judges, aided by several court personnel, conduct the pretrial, trial, and sentencing hearings. Prosecutors, defense counsel, and judges perform different roles, but all are concerned with the judicial process and the interpretation of the law. These law professionals are graduates of law schools and have passed the bar examination, establishing their knowledge of the law and their ability to do legal analysis.  As persons admitted by the state or federal bar associations to the practice of law, they are subject to the same legal codes of professional responsibility, disciplinary rules, and ethical rules and opinions for lawyers. Although the American criminal justice system is said to represent the adversarial model, the reality is that prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and court staff work with cooperation and consensus rather than conflict. This is understandable when considering the common goal of efficient and expeditious case processing, and the prescribed rules for achieving those goals.

The Judge: The Most Important Actor in the Courtroom?

Trial court judges are responsible for presiding over pre-trial, trial and sentencing hearings, as well as probation and parole revocation hearings. They issue search and arrest warrants, set bail or authorize release, sentence offenders, and engage in pre-sentence conferences with attorneys. Trial judges have considerable, but not unlimited, discretion. In addition to the ethical and disciplinary rules governing all attorneys in the state, trial judges are subject to judicial codes of conduct. Judges are bound by the applicable rules of law when deciding cases and writing their legal opinions. Some rules governing judges are flexible guidelines while other rules are very precise requirements.

During the pretrial phase, judges make rulings on the parties’ motions, such as motions to exclude certain physical or testimonial evidence, motions to compel discovery, and motions to change venue. Because most cases are resolved prior to trial through plea-bargaining, one important judicial function is taking the defendant’s guilty plea. At trial, if the defendant elects to waive a jury, there is a bench trial, and the judge sits as the “trier of fact.” Like jurors in a jury trial, the judge has considerable discretion when deciding what facts were proven (or not) by the parties and what witnesses he or she finds credible. When the defendant elects for a jury trial, the jury decides what the facts are. In either a bench or jury trial, the trial judge rules: on the admissibility of evidence (whether a jury is entitled to hear certain testimony or look at physical evidence), whether witnesses are competent, whether privileges exist, whether witnesses qualify as experts, whether jurors will be excused from jury service, etc. At the end of the jury trial, the judge gives a set of jury instructions to the jurors that inform them on the law that applies to the case they are deciding.

If the defendant is convicted, then the judge will impose the sentence. Except for death penalty cases, jurors are generally not involved with sentencing the defendant.  Judges have perhaps the broadest discretion in their role imposing sentences. However, with more states enacting mandatory minimums and sentencing guidelines, judicial discretion has been severely curtailed.

Despite all of these roles, the view of judges as the most powerful courtroom actors is somewhat misleading. This is because the majority of criminal cases are settled by pleas, not trials. In such cases, the key player may be the prosecutor who determines the criminal charges, and ultimately negotiates the plea deal. While the term “plea bargain” may imply that criminal defendants have gained advantage, we would be well reminded to consider that every plea represents a conviction, and thus, a “win” for the prosecutor. If we further consider that only 2% of criminal cases go to trial in federal court (with a similar figure in the PA Courts of Common Pleas), we might conclude that prosecutors wield significant power indeed.<footnote>Gramlich, J. (2019). Only 2% of Federal Criminal Defendants Go to Trial, and Most Who Do Are Found Guilty. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/06/11/only-2-of-federal-criminal-defendants-go-to-trial-and-most-who-do-are-found-guilty/)</footnote>

Trial Judge Selection and Qualifications

The sole qualification to be a judge in most jurisdictions is graduating from a law school and membership in the state’s bar association. Although the trend is for judges to be lawyers prior,  a few jurisdictions (such as PA) do not require magisterial judges to be lawyers.

States procedures in selecting judges vary tremendously.  “Almost no two states are alike and many states employ different methods of selection depending on the different levels of the judiciary creating ‘hybrid’ systems of selection” [2]. Nevertheless, the primary differences surround whether judges are elected or appointed, or selected based on merit. There are four primary methods used to select judges in the United States: appointment, with or without confirmation by another agency; partisan political election; non-partisan election; and a combination of nomination by a commission, appointment and periodic reelection (the Missouri Plan). States may also use different methods to select judges based on their level in the judicial hierarchy (ex. magisterial, trial, appellate, Supreme Court).

The length of time a judge will “sit”, called a term in office or tenure, varies greatly, generally from four to sixteen years. Frequently, the term for a trial judge is less than a term for an appellate judge. At the appellate level, six years is the shortest term, and many states use terms of ten years or more for their appellate judges.  Only a few states have lifetime tenure for their judges.

In the federal system, the President appoints Article III judges (U.S. District Court, U.S. Circuit Court, and U.S. Supreme Court judges) with the advice and consent of the Senate. In Article III, U.S. Constitution states that federal judges are appointed to “hold their Offices during Good Behavior” – effectively, for life. The district courts appoint federal magistrate judges to either four or eight-year terms.

Other Members of the Courtroom Workgroup

Each of the boxes below details courtroom personnel with whom you may be less familiar.

Judicial Clerk, Law Clerk, and Judicial Assistants

Generally, judges have one or two main assistants. These individuals are known as “judicial clerk”, “clerk of court”, “law clerk”, or “judicial assistant”. Of course, there may be several court clerks who interact each day with all the judges in the courthouse, but generally, judges have only one or two judicial assistants who work directly with them. The clerk of court works directly with the trial judge and is responsible for court records and paperwork both before and after the trial. Usually, each judge has his or her own clerk. The clerk prepares all case files that a judge will need for the day. During hearings and the trial, these clerks record and mark physical evidence introduced in the trial, swear in the witnesses, or administer the oath to the witness, take notes cataloging the recordings, etc. In some jurisdictions, the law clerks are lawyers who have just completed law school and may have already passed the bar exam. In other jurisdictions, the law clerks are not legally trained but may have specialized paralegal training or legal assistant training.

Local and State Trial Court Administrators 

Local and state trial court administrators oversee the administration of the courts. These administrators’ responsibility includes: hiring and training court personnel (clerks, judicial assistants, bailiffs), ensuring that the court caseloads are efficiently processed, keeping records, sending case files to reviewing courts, ensuring that local court rules are being implemented, and working with the local and state bar associations to establish effective communications to promote the expedient resolutions of civil and criminal cases.

Indigency Verification Officers

The Indigency Verification Officer (IVO) is a court employee who investigates defendants’ financial status and determines whether they meet the criteria for court-appointed counsel. More than 75% of all individuals accused of a crime qualify as indigent.  How poor a defendant must be to qualify for a court-appointed attorney varies from place to place, and each IVO uses a screening device that takes into consideration the cost of defense in the locality, as well as defendant’s financial circumstances.


Bailiffs are the court staff responsible for courtroom security. Bailiffs are often local sheriff deputies or other law enforcement officers (or sometimes former officers), but they can also be civilians hired by the court. Sometimes, courts will use volunteer bailiffs. Bailiffs work under the supervision of the trial court administrator. During court proceedings, bailiffs or clerks call the session to order, announce the entry of the judge, make sure that public spectators remain orderly, keep out witnesses who might testify later (if the judge orders them excluded upon request of either party), and attend to the jurors. As courtroom security becomes a bigger concern, law enforcement officers are increasingly used as bailiffs, and they are responsible for the safety of the court personnel, spectators, witnesses, and any of the parties. In some communities, law enforcement bailiffs may transport in-custody defendants from the jail to the courthouse and back. In most jurisdictions today, bailiffs screen people for weapons and require them to silence cell phones before allowing them to enter the courtroom.

Jury Clerk

The jury clerk sends out jury summons to potential jurors, works with juror requests for postponements of service, coordinates with the scheduling clerk to make sure enough potential jurors show up at the courthouse each day there is a trial, schedules enough grand jurors to fill all the necessary grand jury panels, arranges payment to jurors for their jury service, and arranges lodging and meals for jurors in the rare event of jury sequestration.

Court Clerks and Staff

Court structure varies from the courthouse to courthouse, but frequently court staff is divided into units. For example, staff may be assigned to work in the criminal unit, the civil unit, the traffic unit, the small claims unit, the juvenile unit, the family unit, or the probate unit.  In smaller communities, there may be just a few court clerks who “do it all”. With the trend towards specialized courts (drug courts, mental health courts, domestic violence courts, and veteran courts), staff may specialize in and/or rotate in and out of the various units. Court staff are expected to have a vast knowledge of myriad local court rules and protocols, statutes, and administrative rules that govern filing processes, filing fees, filing timelines, accounting, record maintenance, as well as a knowledge of general office practices such as ordering supplies, mastering office machinery, and ensuring that safety protocol is established and followed. Recently, many courts have transitioned to electronic filing of all documents, usually managed through a centralized state court system. This transition presents challenges to court staff as they learn the new filing software, keep up with new filings, and archive the past court documents.

Release Assistance Officers

Release assistance officers (RAO) are court employees who meet with defendants at the jail to gather information to pass on to the judge who makes release decisions. Release assistance officers make their recommendations based on the defendant’s likelihood of reappearance and other considerations specified by statute or local rules. In determining whether the defendant is likely to reappear, the RAO considers: the defendant’s ties to the community, the defendant’s prior record of failures to appear, the defendant’s employment history, whether the defendant lives in the community, the nature and seriousness of the charges, and any potential threat the defendant may present to the community.

The availability of space at the jail may also play a role in whether an individual is released. Court and jail staff may need to work together to establish release protocols when space is limited. The RAO should have a significant voice in drafting those protocols. Whether the RAO recommends security (bail) or conditional release, the RAO will generally suggest to the judge the conditions that the defendant should abide by if he or she makes bail or is conditionally released. Defendants released prior to trial will sign release agreements indicating the conditions of release recommended by the RAO and imposed by the judge. RAOs may also investigate the defendant’s proposed living conditions upon release to make sure that they promote lawful activity and the ability for reappearance for all scheduled court appearances.

Scheduling Clerk

The scheduling clerk, or docketing clerk, set all hearings and trials on the court docket. The scheduling clerk notes the anticipated duration of trials (most trials are concluded within one day), speedy trial constraints, statutory and local court rules time frames, etc. The role of the scheduling clerk is extremely important, and an experienced scheduling clerk contributes to the overall efficiency of the legal process. Ineffective or inefficient scheduling causes delay, frustration, and may impede the justice process. Part of scheduling, or docketing, is keeping track of law enforcement officers’ and defense attorneys’ scheduled vacations. In addition, the scheduling clerk must be mindful of the judges’ calendars which should track scheduled vacation time and training days, and also needed desk time, the time necessary for resolving cases they have taken under advisement. (Note that trial judges can either decide “from the bench”, meaning they will rule immediately on the issues before them during the hearing, or after taking the case under advisement, meaning they will rule through a written decision/opinion letter after spending time researching the law, reviewing the parties ‘written pleadings, and considering the oral arguments).

Listen: The Courtroom Workgroup in Action

As noted above, the adversarial system – which pits prosecutors “against” defense attorneys – is actually quite collaborative in practice. Consider this case covered by the Serial podcast on the Cleveland Criminal Court. While the defendant believes herself to be unfairly accused in the assault of a police officer, her defense attorney negotiates a plea deal that is satisfactory to the state and the defense – but clearly derails her life. Listen here.

  1. Eisentstein, J., & Jacob, H. (1977). Felony Justice: An organizational analysis of criminal courts. Boston, MA: Little Brown and Co.
  2. Berkson, L.C. (2005). Judicial selection in the United States: A special report.  In E.E. Slotnick (Ed.) Judicial Politics: Readings from Judicature (3d ed., pp. 50). Washington, DC: CQ Press 


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5.7. Courtroom Players: Judges and Court Staff Copyright © 2019 by Lore Rutz-Burri and Kate McLean is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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