What is the Role of the Judge in a Criminal Case?

November 22, 2017 by Seppi Esfandi in California  Criminal Defense  
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Interpreting the Law

The role of the Judge in a Criminal Case has several duties. They interpret the laws, assess any evidence presented, and oversee how hearings and trials unfold in the criminal courtroom. But perhaps most importantly, in the majority of criminal cases, judges are the impartial decision-makers in the pursuit of justice.

Article III of the United States Constitution charges the judicial system with ‘interpreting the law’.

The United States has what is known as an “adversarial judicial system” – that is, criminal cases are contests between two opposing sides, which ensures that evidence and legal arguments will be fairly presented to the court by both sides.

The judge, however, remains neutral, presiding as an impartial mediator or ‘referee’ between the prosecution representing “the people” and the defense representing the “defendant”.

In this article we will go over these main duties of a Criminal Courtroom Judge:

  • Manage Court Proceedings
  • Act as Referee to Ensure Rights and Due Process
  • Establish Facts in Some Cases
  • Act as a Jurist
  • Bring Forth Sentencing for a Conviction

Duties of the Role of the Judge

Manage Court Proceedings

The judge’s first role is to manage criminal cases, hear motions, set the schedules and enroll juries in criminal court. Although clerks and court staff may issue notices and maintain calendars, it is ultimately the judge’s responsibility.

A judge also must make sure all the parties and witnesses follow proper courtroom procedure. The reason is to uphold the 6th Amendment of the US Constitution: The right to a fair trial.

Act as Referee

A judge’s robe can be seen as similar to the uniform worn by a referee in a sporting event. When they put on that black robe, they become the mediator and the ultimate representative of the law.

In criminal cases, where penalties may significantly affect or perhaps even result in the defendant being sent to prison, an objective referee is vital to ensure civil rights and due process guaranteed in the Bill of Rights and those enumerated in California constitution. Appeals may often result from refereeing errors made by the judge.

Establish Facts

Many criminal cases are heard by a judge sitting without a jury. The judge is the “trier of fact,” deciding whether the evidence is credible and which witnesses are telling the truth. Then the judge applies the law to these facts to determine whether a civil claim has been established on a balance of probabilities or whether there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt, in criminal cases, that the suspect is guilty

Because the level of proof needs to be so high in a California criminal trial, the establishment of facts is of vital importance. In a “bench” trial, a judge makes the decisions as to what is fact or not, and as the ultimate trier of fact, will decide whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty.

Alternatively, in a jury trial, the jury holds this burden of “trier of fact”.

Act as a Jurist

In a jury trial, the judge and jury must work together to guarantee a fair hearing and the determination of guilt or innocence. Judges must supervise examinations by attorneys and control divergent interests to enlist an unbiased jury. Judges must order the jury to ignore overly prejudicial information, hearsay, propaganda or any other evidence deemed inadmissible in the courtroom.

The judge instructs the jury regarding its job; he assists the jury by explaining court procedure and the meaning of the laws it must use to make its final determinations.

Sentence the Convicted

A finding of guilt, or no contest, in a criminal case will trigger the next phase called “sentencing“. The judge will pronounce penalties based upon opposing attorney arguments and the jury recommendations in a jury trial. In a bench trial, the role of the judge alone will determine and announces the penalties.

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