Just the Facts: Magistrate Judges Reach the Half Century Mark
Just the Facts is a feature that highlights issues and trends in the Judiciary based on data collected by the Judiciary Data and Analysis Office (JDAO) of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Comments, questions, and suggestions can be sent to the data team.
Throughout 2018, the federal Judiciary celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Federal Magistrates Act of 1968,1 which established the magistrate judge system. The law was enacted by Congress in response to increasing demands on the federal courts. U.S. magistrates replaced U.S. commissioners, who worked part-time and had limited authority. These new judicial officers had expanded powers, and today, they are empowered to handle any matter that a district judge can handle except for felony trials and felony sentencings.2
- Magistrate judges are officers of the district courts who are appointed by a majority vote of the district judges of the court. They serve renewable eight-year terms and perform a variety of judicial duties, which vary from one district to another. There are also a small number of part-time magistrate judges, who serve four-year terms, which also may be renewed.
- Congress changed the title of United States Magistrate, the title designated by the Federal Magistrates Act of 1968, to United States Magistrate Judge in 1990. The Federal Magistrates Act was amended in 1976, 1979, and 2000 to improve the administration of the magistrate judges system and to expand the authority of magistrate judges.
- To qualify to become a magistrate judge, an individual must be, and have been, a member in good standing for five years of the highest court bar of a state, commonwealth, territory, or the District of Columbia. A merit selection panel consisting of lawyers and non-lawyers from the community chooses five candidates and submits the list for a final vote by the district judges of the court.
- In Wellness Int’l Network, Ltd. v. Sharif, 135 S. Ct. 1932 (2015), Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted that Congress created magistrate judges to assist district courts in their work and added, “It is no exaggeration to say that without the distinguished service of these judicial colleagues, the work of the federal court system would grind nearly to a halt.”
- The importance of magistrate judges in the operation of the district courts is also reflected in a quotation by Justice John Paul Stevens. In Peretz v. United States, 501 U.S. 923, 928 (1991) (quoting Virgin Islands v. Williams, 892 F.2d 305, 308 (3d Cir. 1989)), he said, “Given the bloated dockets that district courts have now come to expect as ordinary, the role of the magistrate in today’s federal judicial system is nothing less than indispensable.”
The duties of magistrate judges are established in 28 U.S.C. § 636 and 18 U.S.C. § 3401, but their roles and responsibilities vary from one district to another, based on the needs and preferences in each individual district. All magistrate judges are authorized to perform the following:
- Commissioner duties: Issue search and arrest warrants; preside over felony initial appearances and arraignments; set detention and bail for felony defendants; and disposition of misdemeanor criminal cases, which may involve prison terms of one year or less.
- Additional duties assigned by district judges: These can include civil and felony pretrial duties. Magistrate judges can rule on non-case dispositive motions in civil cases and felony cases, but in case-dispositive motions, they issue proposed findings of fact and make recommendations for disposition of the matter to a district judge, who issues the final decision. Also, magistrate judges can conduct settlement conferences in civil cases. Under § 636(b)(3), they can be assigned additional duties “not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States.”
- Disposition of civil cases, if the case is referred to the magistrate judge by a district judge and the parties consent to the magistrate judge disposing of the cases. In these matters, the magistrate judge presides through the final disposition of the case.
Magistrate judges may not:
- Conduct a trial of a felony defendant,
- Sentence a felony defendant, or
- Issue an electronic eavesdropping order (wiretap) under 18 U.S.C. § 2511.
Facts and Figures
The number and locations of magistrate judge positions are determined by the Judicial Conference of the United States, based on recommendations of the Committee on the Administration of the Magistrate Judges System, the district courts, the judicial councils of the circuits, and the Director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.
- There are 541 full-time magistrate judges authorized for fiscal year (FY) 2019,3 32 part-time magistrate judges, and three clerk/magistrate judge positions (with four-year terms). Their numbers have steadily increased over the years. In FY 1971, there were 61 full-time magistrate judges, 449 part-time magistrate judges, and eight clerk/magistrate positions. Chart 1 displays the numbers of full-time and part-time magistrate judges, as well as the number of authorized district judgeships. The number of full-time magistrate judges increased 780 percent, from 61 in 1971 to 537 in 2018, while the number of part-time magistrate judges decreased 93 percent, from 449 in 1971 to 33 in 2018.
- During FY 2018, U.S. magistrate judges disposed of 1,182,422 matters, a 2 percent decrease from FY 2017. Since 2000, total matters heard by magistrate judges have increased by 233,855 (up 21 percent), as shown in Chart 2.
- Chart 3 gives a breakdown of total matters disposed of by magistrate judges by reporting category for each fiscal year from 2013 through 2017. About one-third of matters heard by magistrate judges involved either civil proceedings (including motions, settlement conferences or mediations, and other pretrial hearings) or felony preliminary proceedings (including initial appearances, search warrants, arraignments, arrest warrants and summonses, and bail and detention hearings). The criminal category (including dispositive and non-dispositive motions, evidentiary hearings, motion hearings/arguments, guilty plea proceedings, probation revocation hearings, supervised release revocation hearings, and reentry/drug court proceedings) accounted for 16 percent to 17 percent of total matters handled by magistrate judges, and criminal trial jurisdiction cases (misdemeanor and petty offense cases) constituted 7 percent to 10 percent. Matters in the prisoner litigation (reports and recommendations and evidentiary hearings only), civil consent dispositions, and miscellaneous categories accounted for just under 10 percent of the total duties performed by magistrate judges in the five-year span.
- The interactive map below provides statistics on the work of magistrate judges during FY 2017 by judicial district.