Even if you have never set foot in a courtroom, you probably know that a judge is the person who determines the final outcome of most court cases. But just what exactly do they do? And just who is qualified to become a judge?

Depending on the type of case he or she presides over, a judge has one specific area of concentration. Judges in criminal cases, for example, have extensive experience in federal and/or criminal law matters. Meanwhile, other judges specialize in bankruptcy, family, traffic, and various branches of the law.

Generally speaking, a person must have a law degree before he or she can become a judge. In fact, the majority of judges began their careers as attorneys prior to earning their current position and, even in states where previous legal experience is not required, it is preferred nonetheless.

Unlike lawyers, judges are political figures who must be elected or appointed before they can preside over a courtroom. Most State judges, for instance, are elected by voters, while federal and appellate judges are typically appointed by an elected official.

It is important for a judge to maintain in-depth and up-to-date knowledge of the laws in his or her jurisdiction. As the authoritative figure in a trial, the judge may be called upon to settle disputes, impose sentencing, determine a person’s guilt or innocence, award compensation, and other important activities. In jury trials, the judge is also responsible for explaining complex legal issues to the jury, and instructing jurors on how to apply those laws to a particular case.

Because it is ultimately the judge who decides crucial issues in a case, such as whether evidence is legally admissible in court, judges must follow a very strict ethical code. As a result, most states have very specific training and continuing education requirements that judges are expected to follow.

Due to the nature of their work, judges must approach each and every one of their cases without bias. Any conflicts of interest or prejudicial behaviors can be grounds for a retrial if the case is appealed.