Reasonable Doubt: How does someone become a judge?

How does one become a judge? Spoiler alert: there is no such thing as a “judge school”. Kevin Yee walks you through the process to explain who these members of the bench are and how they got there.

The courtroom can be a bit overwhelming for the uninitiated. You’ve got a number of people in it with very specialized roles. There are sheriffs, court clerks, and lawyers. Members of the public are generally allowed to sit in the back to observe.

Of course, the most noticeable person in the courtroom is the judge. The judge sits front and centre on an elevated bench overlooking everything. The judge might be listening quietly to the proceedings. Or the judge may direct individuals in the room to move things along.

Regardless, for anyone watching a courtroom proceeding, the judge’s command of the room is obvious. When the judge speaks, everyone listens. And everyone is expected to conduct themselves with deference to the judge.

So who is that person that sits up on the bench? How did he or she get to that position? What are the qualifications for a judge in B.C.?

To be clear, we are discussing judges in B.C. courts. Let’s set aside other adjudicators, such as justices of the peace, masters, or tribunal members. And we’re also not talking about TV judges like Judge Judy—that’s a fun discussion but it’s for another time.

B.C. has superior courts: the B.C. Supreme Court and the B.C. Court of Appeal. B.C. also has provincial court. Although judges of B.C.’s superior courts are appointed by the federal government, B.C.’s provincial court judges are appointed by the B.C. government.

The process in the U.S. can be drastically different. In contrast to an appointment process, many judges in the U.S. are elected to the bench. For an entertaining perspective, check out comedian John Oliver’s take on that election process. The TV ads for campaigning judges that were featured in that piece don’t seem that different from the lawyer ads that I addressed in an earlier article.

So how does someone become a judge in B.C.? Judges start out at law school, just like any lawyer. There is no separate school for people aspiring to be judges. Judges practise as lawyers for many years before their appointments. For B.C. judges, this is generally for a minimum of 10 years.

Just like with any job, lawyers need to apply to become a judge. They apply to committees or councils that are set up to vet candidates. These councils are made up of judges, lawyers, and lay people. They will consider a candidate’s skills relating to legal analysis, decision-making, and communication.

But they also consider other factors, such as the candidate’s reputation among lawyers and judges, health, and standing in the community. If all goes well, the council recommends the candidate to the government for appointment. The government has the final say on whether or not a candidate is appointed to the bench.

There is importance placed on ensuring that the judiciary is diverse and reflective of our society. A justice system is only able to instill confidence if the bench is representative of the public. A spokesperson for Suzanne Anton, provincial minister of justice and attorney general, sent us this statement:

“Our government is committed to ensuring a diverse judiciary. We are making progress in this area. The Chief Judge and I look forward to, and encourage, a broad range of applicants to the Judicial Council of British Columbia so that we can continue to build a judicial complement that reflects the diversity of all British Columbians.”

The Judicial Council of British Columbia makes recommendations to the government for provincial court judges. It recently addressed its strategy on promoting diversity in the judiciary in its last annual report. The strategy includes working toward encouraging lawyers from diverse backgrounds to apply and improving the transparency of the application process.

Application forms were changed in June 2013 so applicants could voluntarily include information such as their ethnic and cultural backgrounds. This was to help the council focus their efforts on getting a diverse applicant pool. For a breakdown of applicant demographics and the council’s efforts to promote diversity, have a look at the last annual report of the B.C. Judicial Council.

Judges are an integral part of our justice system. They resolve our disputes and decide on our rights. We should all have a good understanding of how our judges are appointed. Ultimately, we all benefit if we have a better understanding of our justice system.

You can find further information on the appointment of judges in B.C. at the websites of the Department of Justice and the provincial court.