U.S. Magistrate Judge Peter Palermo in the Southern District of Florida remembers attending a 1971 orientation in Washington, D.C., at which Chief Justice Warren Burger entered the room and greeted a group of newly minted magistrates (their title back then) with “Good morning your honors.”
U.S. Magistrate Judge Peter Palermo (S.D. Fla.)
“It was quite a thrill,” Palermo recalled. “He told us that the federal magistrate system could be the greatest innovation in the history of the federal court system— it all depended on us. He said, ‘We don’t know what your jurisdiction is. Keep going ‘til we tell you to stop.’”
The Federal Magistrate Act of 1968, enacted 40 years ago this month, created U.S. magistrates as a new corps of judicial officers in the district courts, replacing the 175-year-old U.S. commissioners system. After a pilot project, the first magistrates began getting sworn in early in 1971. The act has been amended several times since, to confer greater authority and to change the office’s title to magistrate judge.
Palermo and U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Komives in the Eastern District of Michigan, who also took his oath of office in early 1971, have an intimate knowledge of the magistrate judges system. Both have served on the bench for its entire history.
“I still enjoy the work,” Komives, 76, said. Palermo, 90, added, “It was a challenge, and remains a challenge. . . . The job has matured and evolved into something beyond our fondest dreams.” Both judges have served on recall for many years.
Komives, who had served as an assistant U.S. attorney handling organized crime prosecutions, was familiar with the criminal case proceedings he initially was assigned—issuing warrants and presiding over arraignments and pretrial conferences. “It was a full schedule very early on,” he said.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Komives (E.D. Mich.)
He eventually became active in the Federal Magistrate Judges Association (originally called the National Council of U.S. Commissioners and then the National Council of U.S. Magistrates), serving as its president for a year.
Komives was also the first magistrate judge to serve as a member of a Judicial Conference committee, appointed by Burger in 1980 to the Committee on the Administration of the Magistrate Judges System.
Palermo chuckles as he remembers the system’s modest beginning. “I had one desk, one chair, one secretary, and one courtroom deputy,” he said, adding that his initial annual salary was to have been $30,000 but turned out being $22,500.