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Magistrate Judges: "Indispensable Resource" for Federal Courts
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U.S. magistrate judges have been essential to federal court operations for decades, but in fiscal year 2010, their contributions reached new heights as they handled more than 1 million matters.
“Magistrate judges are an indispensable resource,” said Judge George King (C.D. Calif.), who chairs the Judicial Conference’s Committee on the Administration of the Magistrate Judges System. “Quite simply, the federal trial courts would not be able to function without the magistrate judges who conduct all the important preliminary proceedings in criminal cases and perform a wide range of duties in civil cases.”
One of King’s predecessors as the Committee chair, Judge Philip Pro (D. Nev.) agrees. “I would characterize the role of a magistrate judge as fundamentally important,” he said. “The unprecedented growth of caseloads in federal court over the past half century, together with the complexity of many of those cases and the litigation process itself, has spurred reliance on magistrate judges to undertake substantially greater responsibilities.”
The nation’s 94 federal judicial districts are served by 528 full-time and 44 part-time magistrate judges. Full-time judges are appointed to eight-year terms, and part-time judges to four-year terms, by district judges in their district. The terms can be renewed.
Magistrate judges preside over federal misdemeanor cases, handle preliminary matters in felony cases, and are usually the first judicial officer a criminal defendant sees after arrest or indictment. In most districts, magistrate judges also handle pretrial motions and hearings in civil cases and felony criminal cases, which are eventually turned over to district judges for final disposition.
However, at least 27 district courts include magistrate judges on the civil case assignment wheel for direct, random assignment of a portion of cases to them as the presiding judge, subject to the parties’ consent or request for reassignment to a district judge.
In FY 2010, magistrate judges (the job title was changed from magistrates in 1990) disposed of 12,470 civil cases with the consent of the parties and 116,983 misdemeanor and petty offense cases, took on 192,531 additional duties in criminal cases and 260,796 additional duties in civil cases, drew 21,878 prisoner litigation assignments, handled 368,157 preliminary proceedings and another 54,376 miscellaneous tasks—a record 1,027,191 matters in all, a 4.5 percent increase over the previous fiscal year.
“Although magistrate judges cannot fully compensate for an insufficient number of district judges,” said King, “magistrate judges perform critical duties to ensure the timely adjudication of both civil and criminal cases.”
His court, based in Los Angeles, recently renewed its Magistrate Judge Civil Consent Pilot Project for an additional two years. Established in 2008, the pilot assigns full-time magistrate judges with at least three years on the bench two civil cases each month. If all parties timely consent in writing to the magistrate judge’s exercise of civil jurisdiction, the case remains with that judge for all purposes—including trial and entry of a final judgment. (The district has 24 authorized full-time and one part-time magistrate judge positions.)
In a statement announcing the pilot’s extension, the district court said: “The project furthers the court’s core mission of the timely administration and just adjudication of all matters before the court.”
Worth noting is one phenomenon regarding magistrate judges: they often are appointed to lifetime jobs as Article III judges, nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. As of June 1, a total of 143 magistrate judges have been appointed as Article III judges. That total includes Judges King and Pro.
Pro explained those numbers as “consistent with the evolution of the magistrate judges system over the past 40 years.”
“The varied duties of magistrate judges and their flexible utilization throughout the country well qualify them to undertake Article III responsibilities,” he said. “Equally important, the system provides an arena in which magistrate judges routinely demonstrate their ability to do so in a manner which makes them credible candidates for nomination to district and circuit judgeships.”
King added that magistrate judges, through their service, offer “a reliable yardstick by which to measure the candidates’ qualifications . . . a proven track record as judicial officers.”
“They carry a judicial footprint from their body of work, their commitment to the rule of law, their temperament and demeanor on the bench, and their dedication to the public service,” he said.