A magistrate judge assists district court judges with their caseloads in the federal court system of the United States. A person in this position’s primary responsibility is to handle ancillary duties that are frequently performed district judges in order for those judges to handle more trials. He or she may decide a criminal or civil case if both parties agree that the trial should be handled a magistrate judge rather than a district judge.
The federal court system in the United States hears over one million cases per year, according to the Federal Judicial Center. The Federal Magistrates Act of 1968 established the position of federal magistrate to assist federal courts in handling more trials; the title was changed to magistrate judge in 1990. Federal district courts are assigned to these positions based on caseload criteria.
The United States Congress established the powers and responsibilities that magistrate judges can exercise, but due to the diversity of district courts, the court’s discretion over which duties are assigned to magistrate-level judges is left to the court’s discretion. In order to expedite cases, the district court chooses to use these judges in whatever capacity is necessary. These judges are appointed a majority of active district judges and are reappointable.
A magistrate judge’s responsibilities are determined the district judges with whom they work. They assist district judges assisting them in the preparation of cases for trial and presiding over discovery and pretrial hearings. In some cases, they may also preside as the judge. They can, for example, conduct misdemeanor trials or serve as special masters, or temporary judges, in civil cases. These judges preside over cases that would otherwise be heard a federal judge.
Serving as a magistrate judge has its drawbacks. Felony criminal cases cannot be presided over magistrates. They are also not permitted to preside over any case unless both parties consent. Because these judges are considered lower judges, they do not have the same powers as a federal district court judge, they are subject to a slew of other restrictions.
The power of magistrate judges is a point of contention. They should not have the authority they do, according to critics, because they are not nominated the president or approved the United States Senate. Despite this argument, magistrate judges’ responsibilities continue to expand as the federal court system’s caseload grows.