In New York State You Don’t Need a Law Degree To Be a Judge

Imagine you’re charged with a crime and hauled into court. You might expect that the judge sitting across from you has an extensive legal background and is a lawyer of some kind. In New York, that’s not necessarily the case. That’s because New York is one of roughly 20 states where people who aren’t lawyers can get elected judge. You don’t need a law degree, and for that matter, you don’t need a degree of any kind. To serve as a judge at the town level, all you need is to get elected. You can set bail, hold trials, and even send people to jail. Approximately 61% of local judges across New York State — about 1,145 people — had no formal legal education before they were elected. Before you go imagining some elaborate mahogany-furnished courtroom, we’re talking about town courts. Far more modest, most of them are normally tucked away in some small town hall or municipal building that looks more like a ranch-style house than a government building. They're normally where you go for things like traffic court, misdemeanors, and conducting other innocuous legal business. Still, should you find yourself standing in front of a town court judge, it’s possible he or she could have been your server at Applebee’s a year ago.