The judge is the symbol of the administration of justice and presides over the proceedings in the courtroom. The judge's bench should impart an appropriate sense of the position’s importance and dignity. The judge must be able to do the following:
- View and hear all courtroom participants.
- Exercise a protective influence over witnesses.
- Address all persons in the courtroom.
- Speak softly with the attorneys during side-bar conferences.
- Speak quietly with the court clerk.
- Pass documents and exhibits to attorneys, the court clerk, and court reporter.
The judge is an impartial arbiter and needs to be positioned so that he or she does not appear to favor the prosecution (plaintiff) or defense.
The judge should have private access to the bench from a secure corridor. Entry to the bench should be from directly behind or close to the bench. The judge should not have to cross public areas to enter the courtroom.
The judge's bench should facilitate the transfer of documents and verbal communication with the court clerk and court reporter, as well as provide clear lines of sight to the witness. The bench and the court clerk's station should be adjacent. The court reporter's station may also be adjacent to the bench, or may be located in the well area in front of the bench. The witness stand is often immediately adjacent to the judge but can be separated as long as the judge can see and hear clearly. A common practice is to make the witness stand movable so that it may be positioned facing the jury box in a jury courtroom.
The bench is the focal point of the courtroom and should be placed in a prominent location that commands a view of all areas of the courtroom. It should face the spectators and may be placed on the front wall, either centered or off-center, or in the corner of the courtroom.
The judge should have a clear view of all entrances, jurors, witnesses, and attorneys.
The bench work area should be well lighted, but there should be no glare or harsh lights. Normal room lighting should be augmented by task lighting directly above the bench.
Preset controls for lighting the entire courtroom should be located at or near the bench where the lighting may be controlled by the judge or court clerk.
The judge should be able to hear the witness, attorneys, defendant, clerk, court reporter, and others in the courtroom clearly, but noises from the spectator area and corridors should not be audible at the bench.
Several drawers should be provided for forms, supplies, and personal items, as well as adequate shelving for reference materials. The bench should include a comfortable, easily moved executive armchair with adjustable height and swivel capabilities.
The front of the bench may be surrounded by a chest-high shelf approximately ten to twelve inches deep. This allows attorneys to refer to files and documents during a bench conference, prevents the attorneys from approaching too close to the bench and seeing documents on the judge's desk, and prevents attorneys from resting their arms and elbows on the top of the bench. Another solution is to erect a decorative rail in front of the bench to block attorneys from approaching too close, while allowing attorneys to side step the rail for side-bar conferences.
All benches should be sized to accommodate the future installation of ramps or lifts. This will require space to accommodate a wheelchair and unobstructed turning space within the bench, an accessible path to the bench, and an accessible desk.
The route to the bench within the courtroom should occur at the same level as the bench.
A best practice is for any transition from floor level to this raised level (by steps, ramp or lift) to occur outside the courtroom and out of view of the public and court participants.
The front panel of the judge's desk should be made of bullet‑resistant materials. Care should be taken not to use steel-plated materials as this may cause bullets to ricochet through the courtroom.
The judge's bench should have a concealed, silent, positive-action duress alarm that will directly alert the courthouse security station or an employee trained in emergency notification procedures. While care should be taken to avoid placement of the alarm where it could be accidentally activated, the alarm should be within easy reach of the judge.
Its activation should be as inconspicuous as possible. The button should also activate an audio or, preferably, video system within the courtroom, which transmits to the security station. This will enable security personnel to plan an appropriate response.
The trial court bench generally needs to seat one judge. In states where an appellate court may use trial courts, some courtroom benches may need to accommodate a three-judge panel. In trial-level courtrooms, the size of the judge's bench should be proportionate to the size of the courtroom.
In medium-sized courtrooms, the judge's desk top should be six to eight feet in length by two to two and a half feet in depth. In large courtrooms, the length may extend to ten feet. A work surface that is much wider than two feet will cause the judge to sit too far back from the front of the bench and, coupled with the height of the bench, will give the appearance to spectators that the judge is simply a "talking head."
The space between the judge's desk and the wall behind the bench should be approximately five feet so that the judge can move for side-bar conferences, reach for reference books, and move in a dignified fashion to and from the bench. The total space requirement for a judge's bench should range from 45 to 70 square feet.
The eye level of the judge should be higher than that of the average standing attorney. Generally, the minimum elevation of the judge's bench should be 21 inches. Anything lower will place the judge at or below the eye level of the average-height participant.
The bench should be elevated at least three risers (18-21 inches) in a small- and medium-sized courtroom and four risers (24-26 inches) in a large courtroom.
The front of the standard trial bench should be 52 to 56 inches in height. This includes 21 to 22 inches for riser height, 29 to 30 inches for the work surface, and 3 to 4 inches for the privacy rail. Large trial and appellate benches may add 3 to 4 inches for the additional riser height.
Electrical receptacles and cable conduits for built-in video display and computer terminals should be provided. Judges frequently have both a computer or laptop for the purpose of accessing electronic case files and information and a separate video display terminal to view evidence displays.
An electrical engineer or other electrical or computer consultant should assist with the design and installation of such equipment.
The bench in most trial courtrooms should be equipped with a
- Concealed, silent, supervised duress alarm,
- Desktop computer with silent keyboard and flat panel video display,
- Notebook or desktop computer and monitor,
- Separate built-in flat panel video display monitor for evidence display, and
- Microphone connected to a mixer and amplifier controlled by the judge or clerk.
All receptacles should be flush-mounted in the floor. Judges may also wish to take notes on their computer, so the bench may be designed with a keyboard tray.
A telephone may be installed for emergency communications and for holding teleconferences.
All equipment should be recessed into the millwork if possible to avoid blocking the judge’s view of the courtroom.