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Superior Court of California - County of San Diego: General Information: About Us: Courtroom Tour

Courtroom Tour

Adapted from the Los Angeles Superior Court Virtual Courtroom 2000 project.
Click on any of the different location names for more information.

Audience Counsel/Attorney Bailiff Interpreter Jury Room Jury Box Court Reporter Witness Stand Court clerk Chambers Judge

Judge Top

WHAT DOES A JUDGE DO?

When criminal charges are filed by a prosecutor or a civil lawsuit is filed by a litigant, the case is assigned to a courtroom. It is the job of the judge in that courtroom to be in charge of everything that happens to the case.

In every case, the judge must be impartial. That means the judge must be able to be fair to everyone involved in the case. They are called the parties. If the judge thinks there is any reason for the parties to question whether the judge can be fair, the judge must tell the parties about this reason. If there is any reason that the judge might not be able to be impartial, such as the judge is a friend of one of the parties, the judge must withdraw from the case. That is called a recusal.

In a criminal case, the judge schedules an arraignment, at which the charges that have been filed are explained to the defendant. The defendant may admit to the charges and plead guilty, or the defendant may ask for a trial. There might be a settlement of the case with a plea agreement, also called a plea bargain, in which the prosecutor recommends that the judge impose a sentence that is less than the maximum possible sentence in exchange for the defendant's plea of guilty to the charges. Or the defendant might agree to plead guilty to a less serious change. If the case is not settled, it will be set for trial.

In a civil case, the judge will usually meet with the lawyers to see if the case can be resolved or settled without having a trial. In a civil case, the settlement usually involves the payment of money in exchange for voluntary dismissal of the lawsuit. If the civil case cannot be settled between the parties, it will be set for trial.

A party may request that the judge make legal rulings about the case before the trial by filing a motion. To make any rulings on a case, the judge must understand the facts and know the law that apply to the case.

A trial is the time when the parties present evidence to prove their case. In a criminal case, the prosecution must present the evidence to prove the defendant is guilty of the crime charged. In a civil case, the person who filed the case must present the evidence to prove the case.

If a trial is held, the judge is responsible for:

  • Setting the hours of the trial;
  • Keeping order in the courtroom;
  • Presiding over the selection of jurors;
  • Permitting the presentation of evidence through testimony of witnesses or the introduction of exhibits;
  • Deciding on what evidence can be considered by the jurors in making their decision;
  • Explaining the law that applies to the case to the jurors so they can deliberate, and
  • Sentencing the defendant if the defendant is found guilty in a criminal case.

HOW DOES SOMEONE BECOME A JUDGE?

There are two ways to become a judge in California.

  • One is to be appointed by the Governor.
  • The other is to run for election.

Qualifications include:

  • Being a lawyer and a member of the State Bar of California.
    • Judges must have at least ten years of experience as a lawyer.
  • A lawyer who seeks an appointment from the Governor must fill out an application. The Governor's staff reviews the application. Most successful candidates also submit letters of support from friends, including other lawyers, judges, law school professors, and others who know about the candidate's qualifications.

  • If the Governor's office thinks the applicant has sufficient merit, the State Bar of California Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation is asked to review the candidate's application. The commission solicits additional information and recommendations from other lawyers and judges who know the applicant.

  • If the applicant receives a high rating, the Governor's staff will submit the application to the Governor, who then decides whether to grant the appointment.

  • A lawyer may also seek a judicial appointment by running for election. They may run against a current judge, or they may run for an open office. Candidates for judicial election are usually evaluated by a committee of the local bar association. The bar association will rate the candidate and inform the voters before the election.

  • The term of office for a trial judge in California is six years.

Chambers Top

The judge's chambers is a room near the courtroom that serves as the judge's office. It usually contains a desk where the judge works when the judge is not presiding over a proceeding in the courtroom.

The chambers is where a judge reads the motions and other papers that are filed in a case that has been assigned to the judge.

The judge also meets in chambers with attorneys and other people about court business.

Unlike the courtroom which is open to the public, the judge's chambers is private. People usually must have the judge's permission to enter his or her chambers.

Court Clerk Top

WHAT DOES A COURT CLERK DO?

A court clerk assists the judge. The clerk's specific duties are to:

  • Maintain the official record of the court;
  • Be responsible for the clerical courtroom activities;
  • Determine whether cases are ready for hearing or trial;
  • Keep the court calendar and give legal notices;
  • Prepare court minutes, judgments and verdict forms;
  • Assist with impaneling juries and administering oaths;
  • Collect, record and report all fines, bail and other money received in court;
  • Take affidavits and acknowledgments and enters all court proceedings on the Register of Actions;
  • Arrange for interpreters, jury panels, files, papers and exhibits;
  • Prepare and issue subpoenas, citations, bench warrants, attachments and other legal documents that facilitate or execute the actions of the court.

HOW DOES SOMEONE BECOME A COURT CLERK?

To become a court clerk a person must:

  • Have at least 2 years of legal clerical experience in a court.
  • Have knowledge of courtroom clerical procedures and legal terminology in the court system.
  • Be able to read, comprehend, interpret, and apply court directives and various laws and regulations.
  • Be able to deal effectively and professionally with judges, attorneys, law enforcement personnel, the public, and staff.

Court Reporter Top

WHAT DOES A COURT REPORTER DO?

A court reporter, officially known as a certified shorthand reporter, must write down everything that is said during official court proceedings. The proceeding might be a trial or a hearing. Rather than using a pencil and paper or a regular word processor that has a full keyboard, the court reporter uses a stenographic machine that has just 22 keys. Using those 22 keys, a court reporter can make symbols on a narrow strip of paper in the stenographic machine to record what is said in court. The stenographic machine has a computer to help convert the symbols into English.

A court reporter must also read out loud in court, portions of what he or she has transcribed on the stenographic machine when the judge instructs the court reporter to do so.

A court reporter must also prepare an official written transcript of the proceeding.

HOW DOES SOMEONE BECOME A COURT REPORTER?

To become a certified shorthand reporter for the San Diego Courts, a person must:

Learn how to use a stenographic machine and to write down what people are saying as they are saying it.

Have a high school diploma.

Meet a number of academic requirements, such as taking classes in English and medical and legal terminology.

Attend a specialized court reporting school.

Be able to write down and translate symbols into a typed English format at the rate of 200 words a minute.

Pass the state-required test to obtain a Certified Shorthand Reporter (CSR) License issued by the Court Reporters Board of California.

Have one year of experience as a certified shorthand reporter

Witness Stand Top

A witness is someone who is called to testify in a court trial or hearing about information or knowledge he or she might have about the case.

A witness must swear under oath that the testimony is true and accurate to the best of the witness's knowledge.

When a witness is testifying, he or she must sit in the witness stand next to the judge's bench.

A witness must answer questions of the attorneys who represent the plaintiff and the defendant.

Court Interpreter Top

WHAT DOES A COURT INTERPRETER DO?

A court interpreter is a person who is fluent in at least one language other than English for which there is a need in the courts in San Diego County. The San Diego Courts use interpreters for 90 languages. An interpreter's duties are to:

  • Translate in the courtroom for non-English speaking parties and witnesses in:
    • arraignments,
    • pleas,
    • pre-trial hearings, and
    • trials


  • Interpreters can be assigned to courtrooms in
    • criminal courts,
    • juvenile courts,
    • mental health courts,
    • family law courts,
    • jail interviews,
    • psychological evaluations, and
    • some civil cases


  • Interpreters are sometimes responsible for translating documents from English into another language or from another language into English.

HOW DOES SOMEONE BECOME A COURT INTERPRETER?

Most interpreters for the courts in San Diego County are not employees of the court the way court clerks and court reporters are. They are independent contractors who are paid only when they are hired for a specific assignment and are paid on a daily, or per diem, basis. Requirements to be a court certified interpreter include:

Passing a state certification examination that is in two parts. One part of the exam is oral, the other is written. The candidate must be able to accurately interpret for individuals with a high level of education and an expansive vocabulary as well as for persons with very limited language skills--without changing the language register of the speaker.

Counsel Top

WHAT DOES A LAWYER DO?

Lawyers operate in a wide variety of capacities, such as providing legal counsel to governments, corporations and to individuals in a wide variety of situations. In a courtroom, however, the lawyer's role is narrowed to a more specific purpose.

Generally, there are two sides in a courtroom proceeding. One side, called the plaintiff, who is seeking a remedy for an injury or to a violation of rights. The plaintiff is also called the complainant. A plaintiff can be government, a corporation, a group of people or a single individual.

The other side is the defendant, who is accused of causing an injury or of violating the plaintiff's rights. The defendant is also called the respondent.

  • A plaintiff's lawyer, who is also called an attorney, works for the plaintiff and explains to a judge what happened between the plaintiff and the defendant and why it happened. The attorney for the plaintiff wants the judge to find that what happened was not legal and that something should be done to fix it.

  • A defendant's attorney, who works for the defendant, also explains to the judge what happened between the plaintiff and the defendant and why it happened. The attorney for the defendant wants the judge to find that what happened was legal. The defendant can be government, a corporation, a group of people or a single individual.

HOW DOES SOMEONE BECOME A LAWYER?

The requirements for becoming a lawyer include:

Earning a bachelor's degree from an accredited college and completing a law school program, and Passing a statewide examination called a bar.

WHAT IS THE SAN DIEGO COUNTY BAR ASSOCIATION?

The San Diego County Bar Association is a local voluntary group of attorneys. They work to improve the legal system, to improve the legal education of attorneys, and to serve the public. If people need to find a lawyer, the San Diego County Bar Association can do it. If people want to solve a problem with a neighbor without going to court, the San Diego County Bar Association can do it through mediation (solving problems by working it out together without a judge.)

Link to San Diego County Bar Association

Jury Top

WHAT DOES A JURY DO?

A jury consists of 12 people who are selected to hear the evidence in a civil or a criminal trial. The evidence is offered by the plaintiff in a civil trial and by the prosecutor in a criminal trial. In most cases, at least one alternate juror is selected. Alternate jurors replace regular jurors who might be unable to continue serving on the case during the course of the trial. After the jurors hear the evidence presented during the trial, they must try to decide if the defendant is guilty or not guilty. In a civil trial, at least 9 of the 12 members of the jury must make the same decision. In a criminal trial, all 12 members of the jury must make the same decision.

HOW DOES SOMEONE BECOME JUROR?

To serve as a juror in the State of California, a person must be:

  • A citizen of the United States;
  • At least 18 years old;
  • Able to read and understand English;
  • A resident of San Diego County;
  • Not convicted of a felony.

Citizens are called to serve by being randomly selected from either the California Department of Motor Vehicles list, or the San Diego County Registrar-Recorder list of registered voters.

Jury Room Top

WHAT DO JURORS DO WHEN THEY DELIBERATE?

After jurors in a criminal trial have heard the evidence, they must decide if the defendant is guilty or not guilty. When they are trying to make that decision, they are deliberating. The evidence usually consists of exhibits, such as weapons and photographs of a crime scene, and testimony, which is given by witnesses on the witness stand.

Before the jurors start deliberating, the attorneys in a case will also talk to them. The speeches the attorneys make to the jurors are called closing arguments.

After the attorneys make their closing arguments, the judge then instructs the jurors on the laws that apply to the case they have heard.

After the judge instructs the jurors on the law, the jurors go into the jury room to deliberate

During deliberations, the jurors can consider only the evidence that was presented during the trial.

When a jury has decided if the defendant is guilty or not guilty, it has reached a verdict.

After a jury reaches its verdict, the judge is notified and the jury returns to the courtroom where its verdict is read by the court clerk.

When jurors deliberate in a civil case, they will also consider evidence and testimony presented during the trial. Jurors in a civil trial, however, must try to decide if the plaintiff (the person who filed the lawsuit) has presented enough evidence to show that the plaintiff has been hurt physically or financially.

Bailiff Top

WHAT DOES A BAILIFF DO?

A courtroom bailiff is a sworn peace officer and in the courts in San Diego County is a member of the Court Services Bureau of the San Diego County Sheriff's Department. The bailiff's duties are to:

Provide safety and security for the courtroom, the judge, the staff and those in attendance;

Escort and remain with defendants who are in custody and prevent escapes;

Assist in the administration of court functions as directed by the judge and the clerk;

The bailiff is also tasked with serving, enforcing, and holding all court orders including arrest warrants and civil process.

HOW DOES SOMEONE BECOME A BAILIFF?

A bailiff in the courts in San Diego County is a sworn peace officer. To become a bailiff, a person must first submit an application to the County Personnel section.

To become a bailiff, one must:

  • Be at least 21 years old;
  • Be a United States citizen;
  • Meet the physical requirements for the position;
  • Pass written and physical agility tests, a psychological examination, polygraph test, and several interviews;
  • Be subjected to a background investigation;
  • Successfully complete the required course in a California Peace Officers Standards and Training (P.O.S.T.) approved academy.

Audience Top

WHO CAN BE IN THE AUDIENCE IN A COURTROOM?

Most court proceedings are open to the public. That means anyone-friends and relatives of the plaintiff or defendant, members of the press, other lawyers, members of the public and even school students can attend.

Members of the audience have certain obligations however:

  • They must be quiet and not talk when court is in session;
  • They generally are not allowed to chew gum or have food or drinks in the courtroom;
  • They should be courteous and respectful of others in the courtroom.

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