Magistrate in the United States

A quasi-judge who assists a judge in processing judicial business. Magistrates are attorneys who are appointed by judges to positions formally authorized under federal or state law. The Federal Magistrates Act of 1968 established the position of U.S. Magistrate, for example. The position was created to provide another tier of judicial officer in the federal courts. Under the 1968 Act, magistrates were assigned specific functions before and after both criminal and civil trials. Some of these duties, such as taking depositions, are comparatively routine. Other functions, however, require judgment such as hearing petty offense cases, issuing warrants, disposing of motions, and conducting arraignments. Amendments to the Act in 1976 and 1979 enabled U.S. magistrates to hear additional pretrial matters and submit findings to the district court. U.S. magistrates are also empowered to preside at trials with the consent of the parties. If a magistrate presides at a trial, direct appeals go to the U.S. Court of Appeals. Full-time U.S. magistrates must be members of the state bar and are appointed to eight-year terms by judges of the U.S. District Court. Part-time magistrates serve four-year terms. There are about 600 full-time and part-time U.S. magistrates in the federal court system. Magistrates are also used in state courts, but seldom have the range of responsibilities of their federal counterparts.

See Also

Judge (Judicial Personnel issue) Referee (Judicial Personnel issue) United States District Court (Judicial Personnel issue) (Judicial Personnel issue).

Analysis and Relevance

The use of magistrates is a response to the enormous caseload increases in the federal and state courts. Assignment of functions to magistrates is preferred by many over authorization of new judgeships or redefining the jurisdiction of existing courts. In the mid-1980s, U.S. magistrates handled about 400,000 matters that would have otherwise fallen to the U.S. District Court judges. The amendments to the Federal Magistrates Act in 1976 and 1979 were intended to clarify the authority of U.S. magistrates. The amendments expanded the power of magistrates, but did not produce the intended clarification. Questions remain about the legal status of magistrates. They perform judicial business and are structurally located in the judicial branch. At the same time, they are not judicial officers as Article III judges are. This paradox involves the growing legal issue of how much of the work of federal judges can be delegated to magistrates. In the meantime, the role of magistrates, especially in the federal system, is both substantial and growing.

Magistrate Definition

A public civil officer, invested with some part of the legislative, executive or judicial power given by the constitution. The president of the United States is the chief magistrate of this nation; the governors are the chief magistrates of their respective states. In a narrower sense, an inferior judicial officer, as a justice of the peace. 32 Ark. 127. The term generally applies -according to the definition of Magistrate based on The Cyclopedic Law Dictionary– to judicial officers having power to issue warrants for the arrest of persons charged with crime, but the use of the term has been held not to necessarily imply such a power. 32 Ark. 124.

Magistrate in Foreign Legal Encyclopedias

For starting research in the law of a foreign country:

Link Description
Magistrate Magistrate in the World Legal Encyclopedia.
Magistrate Magistrate in the European Legal Encyclopedia.
Magistrate Magistrate in the Asian Legal Encyclopedia.
Magistrate Magistrate in the UK Legal Encyclopedia.
Magistrate Magistrate in the Australian Legal Encyclopedia.

Back to Top

Magistrate Judgeships

By the Federal Judicial Center

Magistrate judges serve as judicial officers of the U.S. district courts and exercise the jurisdiction delegated to them by law and assigned by the district judges. Magistrate judges may be authorized to preside in almost every type of federal trial proceeding except for felony cases.

The position of magistrate was established by Congress in 1968 to replace the position of commissioner, a position that had served the federal judiciary since the 1790s. In the mid-1960s members of the congressional judiciary committees and judges on the Judicial Conference of the United States recognized the need for revisions to the commissioner system. Commissioners were still paid by a fee system, the appointment process varied from court to court, and there were no uniform criteria for selection. Members of Congress and federal judges also wanted to relieve the congestion of the federal court dockets by expanding the judicial responsibilities of the commissioners.

The Federal Magistrates Act of 1968 (82 Stat. 1107) created the new title and expanded the magistrates’ authority to conduct misdemeanor trials with the consent of the defendants, to serve as special masters in civil actions, and to assist district judges in pre-trial and discovery proceedings as well as appeals for post-trial relief. The act also authorized a majority of district judges on any court to assign to magistrates “additional duties as are not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States.”

Under the act of 1968, magistrates are appointed by the district judges of each district court and are required to be members of the bar of the highest court within the state where they serve. Full-time magistrates serve for a renewable term of eight years and part-time magistrates for a renewable term of four years. All magistrates are paid by salary. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts was made responsible for the administration of the magistrate system, and the act charged the Federal Judicial Center with providing training for magistrates. After implementation of a pilot program in five districts and the completion of surveys to determine the necessary number of magistrates, the new system was in place throughout the federal judiciary by July 1971.

The district courts’ broad application of the grant of “additional duties” soon led to conflicting interpretations in the courts of appeals. In 1974 the Supreme Court ruled that magistrates could not conduct evidentiary hearings in habeas corpus actions. Congress responded in 1976 with an act (90 Stat. 2729) that further defined the magistrates’ authority and granted them the power to conduct habeas proceedings. In the Federal Magistrates Act of 1979 (93 Stat. 643), Congress again expanded the authority of the magistrates by granting them so-called consent jurisdiction, which authorized them to conduct all civil trials as long as the parties consented. Magistrates were also allowed to preside over all misdemeanor trials as long as the defendants waived their right to a trial before a district judge. The act of 1979 also provided for merit selection panels to assist district judges in the appointment of magistrates.

The Judicial Improvements Act of 1990 (104 Stat. 5089) changed the office title from magistrate to magistrate judge. The number of magistrate judgeships is determined by the Judicial Conference of the United States, on the advice of district judges, the circuit councils, and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, and is subject to congressional funding of the requested positions. As of March 2009 there are 517 full-time and 42 part-time authorized magistrate judgeships, as well as one position combining magistrate judge and clerk of court.


Notes and References

  1. Definition of Magistrate from the American Law Dictionary, 1991, California

Further Reading (Articles)

Magistrates debate college requirement, The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, WV); March 1, 2010; Andrew Clevenger

Magistrates Facing Crisis Go Looking for Recruits, The Birmingham Post (England); November 7, 2000

Magistrates are key part of judiciary, The Roanoke Times (Roanoke, VA); May 1, 2012; Larry Black

Magistrates’ misdeeds alarm MP committee; Two removed from office, four suspended.(News), Daily News (South Africa); November 11, 2010

Magistrates condemned to poor pay and conditions despite protests “.(News), The Sunday Independent (South Africa); September 12, 2010

Magistrates sign petition for new chief, Charleston Daily Mail; January 4, 2001; CHRIS STIREWALT

Magistrates Who Defile Their Posts, The Mercury (South Africa); November 11, 2010

Magistrates from Hell, Cape Times (South Africa); November 11, 2010

Magistrate Considers Plan to Cut Court Hours ; Official Says Schedule Change Could Save Money, Help Streamline Office, Charleston Daily Mail; May 7, 2013; Fallon, Paul

MAGISTRATE EDUCATION COMMITTEE DISCUSS COURT COSTS, US Fed News Service, Including US State News; October 25, 2007

KANAWHA MAGISTRATE: ; Ballot features two new hopefuls; Newcomers will vie with 10 incumbents, Charleston Daily Mail; October 15, 2008; CHERYL CASWELL

KANAWHA MAGISTRATE RACE: ; Candidates list better communication among improvements to court, The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, WV); April 5, 2012; Travis Crum

Some Kanawha magistrates come up short in audit, Charleston Daily Mail; February 12, 2003; TOBY COLEMAN

FEDERAL MAGISTRATE IS A JUDGE, WITH LIMITS, Post-Tribune (IN); November 16, 1987

Magistrates’ antics shock committee.(News), The Star (South Africa); November 11, 2010


MAGISTRATE PAY ; Heavy Debate Expected for Bill; Democrats Want Equal Pay Structure; GOP Says Pay Raise Unnecessary, Charleston Daily Mail; February 20, 2013; Boucher, Dave

Magistrate candidates focus on controlling jail costs, Charleston Daily Mail; April 16, 2008; CHERYL CASWELL

Magistrate, staff pay hikes sought, The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, WV); March 6, 2012; Lawrence Messina







Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *