Explain the Terms “Bench” and “Bar”

Courtrooms come in all shapes, sizes and colors.  From classical to modern, from opulent to austere, each courtroom is as unique as the architecture of the community it serves.  But whether the courtroom is located in Alaska or Florida, all courtrooms in America will share two common features – the bench and the bar.

The bench is the place where the judge sits.  In modern courts, it looks less like a traditional bench for sitting and more like an elevated desk where the judge can sit, work and view all proceedings in the courtroom.  The bench is ordinarily designed to provide a physical barrier between the judge and all other courtroom participants, including attorneys.

Somewhere else in every courtroom another barrier exists – it is called the bar.  The bar is a physical wall that separates the area just in front of the bench and the area where the courtroom spectators sit.  Ordinarily the bar is constructed low (waist-high or lower) to the ground, either of solid wood or railing.  A gate or some other type of entryway allows attorneys to pass beyond the bar and into the area in front of the bench. Spectators are generally not permitted beyond the bar (although clients and litigants may be allowed under certain circumstances).

Because the judge sits at the bench, the term “bench” is also used to describe judges in general.  A community’s “bench” refers to the collection of judges who work in that community.  A “bench trial” means that the judge decides the outcome of a case (as opposed to a jury), and a “bench” brief is a brief that is prepared for the judge to read.

Because attorneys take their places in the courtroom beyond the “bar,” the term “bar” is also used to describe attorneys in general.  A community’s “bar” refers to a collection of attorneys who work in that community.  A “bar” association is an organization of attorneys, and a “bar” exam is the exam that law students take to become licensed lawyers.

— Bonnie Sudderth, Judge of the 352nd District Court of Tarrant County, Texas (Member of both the Bench and the Bar)

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