The U.S. legal system is comprised of two types of trials – the well-known jury trial and its lesser-known counterpart, the bench trial. In a bench trial, the judge sits in substitution of the jury as the fact finder. In that regard, the judge presides over the case from the bench. In addition to resolving all factual discrepancies, the judge still rules on objections and presides in a fashion similar to a jury trial. However, at the close of the evidence, the judge must resolve all factual conflicts as well as determine the relevant law and apply it to the admissible evidence to arrive at a verdict.
In civil proceedings, a defendant usually has the option to request a jury or the case will be heard by the presiding judge. Conversely, in criminal cases, the defendant is entitled outright to a jury trial but may request a bench trial. In order for a criminal case to be heard as a bench trial, the presiding judge must approve the defendant’s request to waive the right to a jury trial.
Some civil proceedings are required to be heard as bench trials. For example, child custody cases must be decided by a judge. Other civil proceedings that present equitable (or non-monetary) remedies must be conducted as bench trials. For example, cases involving injunctions or specific performance are required to be heard by a judge. Additionally, juvenile proceedings and matters in probate court are typically decided by a judge without a jury.
In cases that are eligible for rendition by a judge or by a jury, the decision as to how to proceed is a complicated one and carries significant legal and financial ramifications. In certain cases, complicated factual disputes or subtle legal principles might lend themselves better to a bench trial rather than a jury trial. On the other hand, some cases are clearly more appropriate to be heard by a jury who is typically believed to be more likely to lend a sympathetic ear.