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Free to Experiment: The Use of Magistrate Judges in the District Courts
When Congress amended the Federal Magistrates Act in 1976, the Senate report used some fairly surprising language for a piece of legislation—words such as “experimentation” and “innovative.” The district courts were urged to, within limits, be inventive when it came to the use of magistrate judges. They were encouraged to “remain free to experiment in the assignment of other duties to magistrates.”
Have the federal courts followed that recommendation?
“The position of magistrate judge is living up to Congress’ intent to be forward-thinking,” said Judge George King, in the Central District of California, and chair of the Judicial Conference Committee on the Administration of the Magistrate Judges System. “Congress had the foresight not to impose a one-size-fits-all magistrate judges’ system on the courts. We’ve been allowed to experiment and adapt the position to localized needs. Different courts have different needs. In my district, magistrate judges function more like appeals judges, to the extent their work involves lots of writing and review of cases from other courts and agencies. In a border court, magistrate judges might act more like trial judges, handling guilty pleas and trying misdemeanors cases. Wherever they are, they play important roles in their court.”
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Back in 1968, many newly minted U.S. magistrate judges were former U.S. commissioners, whose duties then included issuing warrants, establishing bail, and trying petty offense cases. With the 1968 Federal Magistrates Act, courts were permitted to assign to magistrate judges “such additional duties as are not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States” that “may include, but are not restricted to” service as a special master, assistance in pretrial proceedings in civil and criminal cases, and review of prisoner petitions for submission of reports and recommendations to district judges. The 1976 amendments clarified and broadened the “additional duties” that may be assigned to magistrate judges.
“The role of magistrate judges has evolved in a number of ways,” said Judge Dennis Cavanaugh, former chair of the Judicial Conference Committee on the Administration of the Magistrate Judges System. “In addition to the direct effect of legislation enhancing and clarifying the scope of magistrate judges’ authority, the federal courts have responded to the overall growth in caseload by using magistrate judges to meet the particular demands of their changing caseloads.” Like King, Cavanaugh has direct experience of that evolution. Both were magistrate judges before being confirmed as district court judges.
The “most innovative and expansive authority given to magistrate judges since the birth of the system,” according to a recent report to the Judicial Conference Magistrate Judges Committee, was the conferral in 1979, by statute, of the plenary power to try civil cases and enter judgment on consent of the parties. All district courts have elected to allow magistrate judges to exercise that authority.
Successful innovations tend to “spread” from one court to another. Some once-innovative duties that are now common duties for magistrate judges in many courts are the disposition of discovery motions in civil cases, and settlement conferences in civil cases.
In recent years, according to Cavanaugh, many courts have assigned an increasing number of felony guilty plea proceedings to magistrate judges. In his New Jersey court, magistrate judges conduct settlement conferences, at which, he says, they’ve become very effective.
“Our district court has a lot of sophisticated intellectual property cases,” said Cavanaugh. “Our magistrate judges take care of the day-to-day problems that leave us free to handle these complicated trials. I couldn’t imagine working without them.”
The use of magistrate judges in settlement conferences also has grown tremendously in the Central District of California. “Our magistrate judges are the best settlement officers in the area,” said King.
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A year ago, the district began a pilot program placing magistrate judges on the civil case assignment wheel on a limited basis. The assigned magistrate judge acts as the provisional presiding judge, “subject to the parties’ subsequent consent to that judge’s plenary authority or declination of consent.”
Two innovative programs involving magistrate judges that have been implemented or are in the planning stages in districts around the country are re-entry programs for convicted criminal defendants on federal supervision, and programs for judge-conducted settlement conferences in prisoner cases.
“When prisoner civil rights cases go to trial, the logistics and security are difficult,” King said. “When both the prisoner and the prison are interested in a settlement conference, that presents an occasion for an innovative use of a magistrate judge.”
Both King and Cavanaugh agree that flexibility is a hallmark of the magistrate judges system.
“There is no ideal or specific model for magistrate judge utilization,” said Cavanaugh, “but from the earliest days, magistrate judges have been recognized as valuable resources in civil as well as criminal cases.”
“This is a position with lots of opportunities for the judge to assist in the work of, and to solve challenges faced by the district courts,” adds King. “A magistrate judge can help the overall machinery of the Judiciary work better and run smoother. I think the majority of districts are doing a fine job of utilizing their magistrate judges to the fullest.”