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Questions and Answers About Magistrate Judges

What is a magistrate judge?

A magistrate judge is a judicial officer of the district court and is appointed by majority vote of the active district judges of the court. A magistrate judge exercises jurisdiction over matters assigned by statute as well as those delegated by the district judges. A full-time magistrate judge serves a term of 8 years. Duties assigned to magistrate judges by district court judges may vary considerably from judge to judge and court to court.  More information about magistrate judges can be located in 28 U.S.C. § 631 and on the US Courts website.

What is a district judge?

A district court judge is nominated by the President and confirmed by the United States Senate, as stated in Article III of the U.S. Constitution.  Article III of the Constitution states that these judicial officers are appointed for a life term. The names of potential nominees often are recommended by senators or sometimes members of the House of Representatives who are of the President's political party. The Senate Judiciary Committee typically conducts confirmation hearings for each nominee, and the vote for confirmation is presented to the entire Senate.

What is the correct title for a magistrate judge?

The correct title for a United States Magistrate Judge is "United States Magistrate Judge," "U.S. Magistrate Judge," or "Magistrate Judge."  This title should appear below the judge's signature line in a proposed order and in the caption of the case.  This title is established by 28 U.S.C. § 631.

The Associated Press Style Book states:

"Use magistrate judge when referring to the fixed term judge who presides in U.S. District Court and handles cases referred by U.S. district judges." p 155 (2003)

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage provides:

"Magistrate Judge. Lynn H. Agnello; Judge Agnello; the judge. If there is a risk of confusion with a district judge, in later references make it Magistrate Judge Agnello or the magistrate judge."  p. 198 (1999)

Confusion arises because the position was "U.S. Magistrate" until redesignated as "United States Magistrate Judge" in 1991.  Some of the misnomers we see include "United States District Court Magistrate,"  "U.S. Magistrate," "federal magistrate," and "magistrate." 

What is the history of the magistrate judge system?

In 1968, Congress expanded on the 175-year-old United States commissioner system by implementing the current magistrate judge system. In 2022, in addition to the 561 full-time magistrate judge positions authorized there were 25 part-time judges and 2 combination clerk of court/magistrate judges who served four-year terms.

What workload is performed by the magistrate judges nationally?

Magistrate judges perform a wide-range of duties in civil and criminal cases.

In civil cases, they will hear pre-trial motions, conduct pre-trial and settlement conferences, may handle dispositive motions and, with the consent of the parties, may conduct the trial. Magistrate judges also handle appeals from social security decisions and most cases filed by pro se plaintiffs who are not prisoners.

In criminal cases, they will handle most pre-trial matters, including an initial appearance, arraignment on charges, including taking a plea of guilty or not guilty, and determining whether the defendant should be detained or released pending trial. Magistrate judges handle all petty offense cases and most misdemeanor cases.

What are the inherent powers of magistrate judges?

A magistrate judge may handle some preliminary and post-judgment matters in civil cases under 28 U.S.C. § 636(a), DUCivR 72-2, and DUCrimR 57-15 without a referral. For instance, scheduling conferences, collection and supplemental proceedings, and criminal case initial appearances and detention hearings do not require a reference from a district judge.

What are the three ways magistrate judges may have more involvement in civil cases, beyond inherent authority?

A magistrate judge may be involved in a civil case when a district judge enters a referral or the parties consent to have a magistrate judge handle the case under 28 U.S.C. § 636. A referral is the process by which the presiding district judge directs a magistrate judge to handle a portion of the case. There are 2 types of referrals: an “A” and a “B.”

An “A” referral allows a magistrate judge to handle all pretrial, non-dispositive motions (e.g., discovery-related motions). “A” refers to the statute, 28 U.S.C. §636(b)(1)(A). A magistrate judge resolves these matters by a direct order. See also Fed R. Civ. P. 72(a).

A “B” referral allows a magistrate judge to handle all maters in a case, including dispositive motions. Dispositive refers to something (e.g., an order or agreement) that resolves a legal issue, claim, or controversy. “B” refers to the statute, 28 U.S.C. §636(b)(1)(B). A magistrate judge resolves dispositive matters (e.g., a motion for summary judgment or a motion to dismiss) by issuing a Report and Recommendation (also called a R&R) to the district judge. See also Fed R. Civ. P. 72(b). The district judge may accept, reject, or modify the R&R, or may remand the case to the magistrate judge for further action. A party may also object to the R&R and the district judge will review and consider the objection.

A magistrate judge for the District of Utah may conduct any or all proceedings in an eligible civil case, including a jury or bench trial and entry of a final judgment. Exercise of this jurisdiction by the magistrate judge under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) is permitted only if all parties voluntarily sign and return Consent to the Jurisdiction of a Magistrate Judge Form (Consent Form). The parties must complete the Consent Form and return it to the consent clerk within 21 days. The Consent Form must not be filed in the case. For more information about a magistrate judge presiding over a civil case, please visit Consent to the Jurisdiction of a Magistrate Judge in a Civil Case.