Main content

U.S. Magistrate Judges - Judicial Business 2015

Magistrate judges handle a broad range of duties in district courts, both on referral from district judges and on assignment as presiding judges. 

In 2015, magistrate judges disposed of 1,090,734 matters, 2 percent fewer than in 2014. This decrease primarily occurred because magistrate judges handled fewer matters related to criminal petty offense cases and civil cases.

Overall, civil matters handled by magistrate judges on referral from district judges declined 6 percent to 348,963. Magistrate judges disposed of fewer nondispositive motions (down 5 percent to 217,020), held fewer pretrial conferences (down 7 percent to 55,600), and issued fewer reports and recommendations on final rulings in civil cases not involving prisoners (down 25 percent to 14,274). However, they held more settlement conferences/mediations (up 7 percent to 22,090).

Civil cases in which magistrate judges were the presiding judges for all proceedings, including trials held upon consent of the parties, grew 5 percent to 16,802. Of those cases, 98 percent did not involve trials. The remaining 2 percent included 265 jury trials and 113 nonjury trials.

Magistrate judges handled 192,593 felony pretrial matters, an increase of 2 percent. They disposed of 102,005 nondispositive motions in felony cases (up 4 percent) and issued 5,279 dispositive motions in felony cases (up 65 percent). The large growth in reports and recommendations was caused by a one-time rise in motions to reduce sentences resulting from amendments to United States Sentencing Guidelines in 2014 that reduced sentencing levels in certain drug cases. Data indicating that magistrate judges handled a much larger number of proceedings in criminal reentry programs (up 91 percent to 5,054) resulted from a continued increase in courts’ providing information on these proceedings, which only began to be reported separately in 2013. Magistrate judges conducted fewer felony guilty plea proceedings (down 5 percent to 28,083).

The number of felony preliminary proceedings handled by magistrate judges rose 1 percent to 349,938. Compared to 2014, magistrate judges handled more search warrant applications (up 7 percent to 66,248), arrest warrants/summons (up 1 percent to 46,772), detention hearings (up 1 percent to 45,751), and attorney appointments (up 1 percent to 7,656). They handled fewer initial appearances (down 1 percent to 92,609), arraignments (down 2 percent to 54,955), preliminary exams (down 1 percent to 22,958), and material witness proceedings (down 4 percent to 4,906).

Magistrate judges disposed of Class A misdemeanor cases with 8,710 defendants (up 4 percent) and petty offense cases with 86,196 defendants (down 13 percent). The drop in petty offense case defendants stemmed from a decline in defendants charged with immigration crimes (down 17 percent to 49,844).

In cases involving prisoners, including cases dealing with habeas corpus petitions and civil rights claims, magistrate judges issued 25,502 reports and recommendations (down 2 percent) and conducted 457 evidentiary hearings (up 9 percent).

Since 2011, the number of matters disposed of by magistrate judges has declined 6 percent. Magistrate judges have handled fewer criminal pretrial conferences (down 40 percent) and guilty plea proceedings (down 14 percent), but more dispositive motions in felony cases (up 75 percent). Magistrate judges have disposed of 19 percent fewer Class A misdemeanor cases and petty offense cases, as well as 10 percent fewer felony preliminary proceedings, despite a 27 percent increase in search warrant applications. Magistrate judges’ duties in civil cases have risen 1 percent in response to growth in their handling of Social Security appeals (up 26 percent), settlement conferences/mediations (up 9 percent), other pretrial conferences (up 2 percent), and non-dispositive motions (up 1 percent), although they handled fewer motion hearings/arguments (down 21 percent). Compared to 2011, magistrate judges have concluded 20 percent more civil cases by consent.

For data on the work of magistrate judges, see Table S-17 and the M series of tables.