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Questions and Answers About Magistrate Judges

   Q: What are magistrate judges?

A U.S. 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 U.S. magistrate judge is appointed based upon the recommendations of a citizen's merit screening committee. A U.S. magistrate judge exercise jurisdiction over matters assigned by statute as well as those delegated by the district judges. A full-time magistrate judge serves a term of eight years. Duties assigned to magistrate judges by district court judges may vary considerably from court to court.  The office is authorized by 28 U.S.C. § 631.

Q: What are district judges?

District court judges are 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 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.

Q: 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." 

Q: What is the history of the magistrate judge system?

The current magistrate judge system was begun by Congress in 1968 expanding on the 175 year old United States commissioner system.. In 2002, in addition to the 486 full-time magistrate judge positions authorized there were 51 part-time judges and 3 combination clerk of court/magistrate judges who serve four year terms.

Q: 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 settlement and pre trial conferences, and may, on assignment, handle dispositive motions and, with the consent of the parties, may conduct the trial.
In criminal cases, they will handle most pre-trial matters, including initial appearance of a defendant before a judge, 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.
Magistrate judges also handle appeals from social security decisions and most petitions by prisoners for review of their convictions, and conditions of confinement.


Year Ending 9/30/02  
Pre Trial  
Motions 191,984
Settlement Conferences 24,420
Pre Trial Conferences 53,371
Consent Cases 12,710
Jury Trials 472
Non Jury Trials 487
Petty Offense & Misdemeanor 72,109
Felony Pre Trial  
Motions 85,693
Pre-Trial Conferences 13,532
Evidentiary Hearings 1,899
Initial Appearance, Arraignment, Detention Hearings 293,002
Prisoner Caes 25,235
Social Security Cases 6,654


Q: What are the inherent powers of magistrate judges?

A magistrate judge may handle some preliminary and post-judgment matters in civil cases under DUCivR 72-2(a) and DUCrimR 57-15.  These matters, such as  civil case scheduling conferences and supplemental and collection proceedings and criminal case initial appearances and detention hearings, do not require a reference.

28 U.S.C. § 636 (a) provides that Magistrate Judges have limited inherent powers including issuance of orders of release or detention of persons pending trial, entry of sentence for a petty offense or for a class A misdemeanor in a case in which the parties have consented; administration of oaths and affirmations, and taking acknowledgements, affidavits, and depositions.  

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

Civil cases are commonly referred to magistrate judges in two ways, called "A" and "B" referrals, under 28 U.S.C. § 636 (b)(1)(A) and (B).  (See also DUCivR 72-2(b) and (c).) Under an A referral, a magistrate judge may issue orders on all non-dispositive motions, but under a B referral, the magistrate judge conducts all proceedings, issuing orders on all non-dispositive matters and giving the district judge a report and recommendation as to final disposition. The district judge may accept, reject, or modify the report and recommendation, and may remand the case to the magistrate judge for further action. The statute treats the following motions as "dispositive":

for injunctive relief, for judgment on the pleadings, for summary judgment, to dismiss or quash an indictment or information made by the defendant, to suppress evidence in a criminal case, to dismiss or to permit maintenance of a class action, to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, and to involuntarily dismiss an action.

In addition, if all parties consent in writing to magistrate judge jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 636 (c) the magistrate judge "may conduct any or all proceedings in a jury or nonjury civil matter and order the entry of judgment in the case . . ."