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A clerk magistrate is a U.S. court official who assists in managing a court’s administrative tasks, and who presides over some preliminary matters. This job often falls somewhere between support staff and judge. Professionals in this role handle court filings, set hearing dates, and manage trial schedules while also adjudicating minor disputes such as traffic infractions and preliminary criminal trial processes. A clerk magistrate will accept pleas, and will make recommendations that can shape the life of a trial.
Only a handful of states have clerk magistrates, and the precise job description varies by local law and custom. All are appointed positions, which means that a government official — usually a state governor — selects clerk magistrate candidates. Most are appointed for lifetime terms of service. They are usually assigned to U.S. District Courts, but they may also be placed in dedicated family courts, traffic courts, or offices of administrative hearings, if such exist and are in need of support.
Support is the clerk magistrate’s primary role. He or she typically takes control of the court’s caseload, helping with high-level tasks like preparing and entering orders; extracting pertinent information from filings; and settling paper-based matters like estate settlement, will execution, and court-ordered property sales. Clerks do not replace ordinary administrative staff, but rather relieve full-time judges of some burdens.
In many respects, a clerk magistrate is somewhat like a junior judge. The job is not designed as a stepping stone to becoming a full-time judge, but rather as a way of freeing up the judge’s time. Most of the states that have clerk magistrates created the jobs as a way of making courts more efficient in the face of rising costs and caseloads. It is often much cheaper to assign clerk magistrates to courts than it is to expand the core judicial base.
Most clerk magistrates are permitted to hear minor matters, including traffic infractions and basic child custody hearings. They may also be permitted to preside over show cause hearings, the first step of any criminal trial. In a show cause hearing, the parties present their preliminary arguments, and the judge — or clerk magistrate, as the case may be — determines whether there is enough material to justify a full-fledged prosecution and trial.
Clerk magistrates who preside over these hearings have a very important role, as it is they who determine whether a case proceeds. Savvy criminal defendants often seek to have their cases thrown out with the clerk magistrate, which prevents the case from advancing. This spares the defendant from receiving a criminal record.
A clerk magistrate should not be confused with a magistrate clerk, an advisory position in the English magistrate court system. Magistrate courts in Great Britain are overseen by either lay or professional magistrates who act as judges. Clerks in this context are professional advisers to the magistrates who manage court proceedings from an administrative perspective.