In the United States federal courts, magistrate judges are judges appointed to assist district court judges in the performance of their duties. Magistrate judges are authorized by 28 U.S.C. § 631 et seq. The position of "magistrate judge" or "magistrate" also exists in some unrelated state courts (see below).
- Review by an Article III tribunal
- County Magistrates in Georgia
- County Magistrates in Kentucky
- Magistrates in Ohio
- District Magisterial Judges/ Philadelphia Arraignment Magistrates/Pittsburgh Municipal Magistrates in Pennsylvania
- County Magistrates in South Carolina
- Texas Magistrates
While district judges are nominated by the President and confirmed by the United States Senate for lifetime tenure, magistrate judges are appointed by a majority vote of the federal district judges of a particular district and serve terms of eight years if full-time, or four years if part-time, and may be reappointed. As of March 2009 there are 517 full-time and 42 part-time authorized magistrate judgeships, as well as one position combining magistrate judge and clerk of court.
Magistrate judges generally oversee first appearances of criminal defendants, set bail, and conduct other administrative duties.
Occasionally Presidents nominate magistrate judges for district judge vacancies. The Federal Magistrate Judges Association is the professional association for magistrate judges.
The magistrate judge's seat is not a separate court; the authority that a magistrate judge exercises is the jurisdiction of the district court itself, delegated to the magistrate judge by the district judges of the court under governing statutory authority, local rules of court, or court orders. Rather than fixing the duties of magistrate judges nationwide, the Federal Magistrates Act allows each district court to assign duties to the magistrate judges as fits the needs of that court.
In criminal proceedings, magistrate judges preside over misdemeanor and petty offense cases, and as to all criminal cases (felony and misdemeanor) may issue search warrants, arrest warrants, and summonses, accept criminal complaints, conduct initial appearance proceedings and detention hearings, set bail or other conditions of release or detention, hold preliminary hearings and examinations, administer oaths, conduct extradition proceedings, and conduct evidentiary hearings on motions to suppress evidence in felony cases for issuance of reports and recommendations to the district judge.
The Supreme Court has held in Peretz v. United States that magistrate judges may supervise the jury selection in a felony trial unless a party objects.
In civil proceedings, magistrate judges typically manage discovery and other pretrial matters. They are authorized to issue orders in pretrial matters as long as the order is not dispositive of the case as a whole (such as an order granting summary judgment). They may also be assigned to write reports and recommendations to the district judge as to dispositive matters. With the consent of the parties, they may adjudicate civil cases in the same manner as a district judge, including presiding over jury or non-jury trials.
Normally, a newly filed federal action is assigned by the clerk of the district court to a district judge and a magistrate judge (whose initials are then appended to the case number in most districts). In some districts, magistrates judges are assigned to work with certain district judges, although they may not do so on all categories of cases. In other districts, magistrate judges are randomly assigned to cases. The clerk runs a random selection procedure (in some courts, spinning a wheel) based on a list of all available district judges and then runs the same procedure based on a list of all available magistrate judges.
In a few districts, starting with the District of Oregon in 1984, magistrate judges participate together with district judges on a unified list of judges available for new cases. A newly filed case can then be assigned to a magistrate judge for all purposes, subject to the ability of any party in the action to affirmatively decline consent to that procedure within a certain time period. Filing of such a declination causes the magistrate judge to return the case to the court clerk for a standard assignment to a district-magistrate pair.
Review by an Article III tribunal
Because Article III of the United States Constitution vests the judicial powers in courts to which the judges are appointed for life (and which are therefore called Article III tribunals), decisions of a magistrate judge are subject to review and either approval, modification or reversal by a district judge of that court - except in civil cases where the parties consent in advance to allow the magistrate judge to exercise the jurisdiction of the district judge, and in which case appeals from the decision of the magistrate judge are heard by the United States Court of Appeals. The magistrate judges therefore operate under the authority of Congress to appoint "inferior courts", set forth in Article I, making them Article I judges.
The Supreme Court most thoroughly delineated the permissible scope of Article I tribunals in Northern Pipeline Construction Co. v. Marathon Pipe Line Co., striking down the statute that created the original U.S. bankruptcy court. The Court noted in that opinion that the framers of the Constitution had developed a scheme of separation of powers which clearly required that the judicial branch be kept independent of the other two branches via the mechanism of lifetime appointments. However, the Court also found that Congress has the power under Article I to create adjunct tribunals, so long as the "essential attributes of judicial power" stay in Article III courts. This power derives from two sources. First, when Congress creates rights, it can require those asserting such rights to go through an Article I tribunal. Second, Congress can create non-Article III tribunals to help Article III courts deal with their workload, but only if the Article I tribunals are under the control of the Article III courts. The magistrate judges fall within this category of "adjunct" tribunals. All actions heard in an Article I tribunal are subject to de novo review in the supervising Article III court, which retains the exclusive power to make and enforce final judgments.
The Supreme Court later noted, in Commodity Futures Trading Commission v. Schor, that parties to litigation could voluntarily waive their right to an Article III tribunal, and thereby submit themselves to a binding judgment from an Article I tribunal.
The office of United States magistrate judge was established by the Federal Magistrates Act of 1968. Its foundation is the United States commissioner system, established in 1793. Commissioners were previously used in federal courts to try petty offense cases committed on federal property, to issue search warrants and arrest warrants, to determine bail for federal defendants and to conduct other initial proceedings in federal criminal cases. The Federal Magistrates Act of 1968, as amended, was enacted by the Congress to create a new federal judicial officer who would (1) assume all the former duties of the commissioners and (2) conduct a wide range of judicial proceedings to expedite the disposition of the civil and criminal caseloads of the United States district courts.
In 1979, Congress expanded federal magistrates' authority to include all misdemeanors recognized by the federal criminal code. Magistrates' titles changed again in 1990, when they became "magistrate judges," symbolizing the ever-increasing importance of their work. The system has worked relatively well in the last 30 years, and has tended to shift the federal courts' caseload to the desired balance. Some legal observers have criticized the increasing powers of magistrate judges, who are neither appointed by the President nor confirmed by the Senate. On the other hand, the selection of a magistrate judge is a merit-based process which, by statute, requires public notice of a vacancy and the appointment of a merit selection panel which includes both lawyers and at least two non-lawyers. The panel is required to consider the attributes of each candidate, including scholarship, experience, knowledge of the court system, and personal attributes such as intelligence, honesty and morality, maturity, demeanor, temperament, and ability to work with others. Applicants for the post must be personally interviewed and recommended for the position. Magistrate judges are compensated at a slightly lower scale than district judges and do not benefit from the full array of benefits accorded to district judges, so increased magistrate judge involvement in judicial matters has a cost-savings effect for the federal courts.
County Magistrates in Georgia
In Georgia, each county has a chief magistrate, elected by the voters of the county, who has the authority to hold preliminary hearings in criminal cases, conduct bench trials for certain misdemeanor offenses, including deposit account fraud (bad checks), grant bail (except as to very serious felony charges), and preside over a small claims court for cases where the amount in controversy does not exceed $15,000. In some counties the chief magistrate may be authorized to appoint one or more additional magistrates to assist in carrying out the chief magistrate's duties. In some Georgia counties the Probate Court Judge also presides over magistrate court as Chief Magistrate. The enabling legislation does not require magistrates to be licensed attorneys and most Magistrates in Georgia are not required licensed attorneys, however, local legislation in certain counties requires that either the chief magistrate or all of the magistrates be licensed attorneys so some counties have both attorneys and non-attorneys on the magistrate court bench.
County Magistrates in Kentucky
In many counties in Kentucky, Magistrates are elected every four years to the County's Fiscal Court. A Fiscal Court is led by an elected County Judge-Executive and is equivalent to a County Commission. A Kentucky County is separated into districts, and the citizens of each district elects a Magistrate to serve on this court. Under Kentucky's first constitution, Fiscal Courts were in charge of all judicial and legislative powers of a county. In the present constitution the Fiscal Court is only designated to carry out legislative powers, while the Judge-Executive carries out the executive powers of the county. In some counties in Kentucky, the magistrates no longer sit on the Fiscal Court, having been replaced by three at-large County Commissioners, along with the County Judge/Executive. In these counties, magistrates are still elected, however their duties are limited to the performance of marriage ceremonies.
Magistrates in Ohio
In Ohio, magistrates are appointed by the judges of many municipal courts, domestic relations and juvenile courts, and some courts of appeals and common pleas courts. In addition, to avoid any conflict of interest, most communities with mayor's courts have magistrates preside over sessions, rather than the mayors themselves. Ohio magistrates do virtually everything judges do. Their actions are subject to review and either approval, modification or reversal by judges of their court. The exception is mayor's court magistrates. Upon the timely notice of appeal from a conviction in a Mayor's Court, the proceeding before either the county or municipal court of the county in which the community is located is de novo.
District Magisterial Judges/ Philadelphia Arraignment Magistrates/Pittsburgh Municipal Magistrates in Pennsylvania
In Pennsylvania, magisterial district judges are elected for six-year terms by the electors in the district that the magistrate judge serves. They serve alone in districts apportioned by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania and exercise statewide jurisdiction, with limitations. They conduct criminal arraignments and preliminary hearings, issue arrest warrants and search warrants in some cases, hear civil disputes involving $8,000.00 or less, Landlord-Tenant disputes, except not matters involving title to real estate, issue temporary Protection from Abuse Act orders, decide traffic, game law, and fish and boat code cases, conduct marriages, administer oaths and affirmations, etc. They are state employees and supervise staffs which are county employees.
Unlike judges in the county-level Courts of Common Pleas, or in the appellate courts, magistrates in Pennsylvania are not required to have law degrees.
County Magistrates in South Carolina
In South Carolina, magistrates are appointed to four-year terms by the Governor upon the advice and consent of the Senate. They serve the county in which they are appointed and exercise county wide jurisdiction. They preside over civil and criminal cases, issue restraining orders, search and arrest warrants and conduct bond hearings (except as to a limited number of the most serious offenses such as murder), preliminary hearings, bench and jury trials. They have jurisdiction in civil cases when the amount in controversy does not exceed $7,500 per side (example: Plaintiff sues for $7500 and Defendant counterclaims for $7500), in traffic and criminal cases (offenses carry a penalty range from 1 day up to 3 years, although most are 30 days) and Landlord-Tenant cases with no limit on the dollar amount involved. Magistrates are referred to by the litigants and lawyers that appear before them as "Judge" or "Your Honor." The South Carolina Constitution guarantees defendants the right to a trial by jury on all criminal charges. Juries in Magistrate's Courts are composed of six citizens.
In Texas, all judges are magistrates, along with mayors of incorporated cities.