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A magistrate judge serves in the United States federal court system by assisting district court judges with their caseloads. The primary role of a magistrate judge is to handle ancillary duties often performed by district judges so that those judges can handle more trials. In some cases, a magistrate judge will decide a criminal or civil case if both parties consent to having the trial handled by a magistrate judge instead of a district judge.
According to the Federal Judicial Center, the U.S. federal court system hears more than one million cases per year. The position of federal magistrate was created in 1968 by the U.S. Congress’ Federal Magistrates Act to help federal courts handle more trials; the job title was changed to magistrate judge in 1990. Magistrate judge positions are given to federal district courts based on caseload criteria.
The U.S. Congress established powers and responsibilities that magistrate judges can perform, but because of the diversity of district courts, it is up to the court’s discretion which duties are given to magistrate judges. The district court chooses to use magistrate judges in whatever capacity they need to in order to expedite cases. Magistrate judges are appointed by a majority vote of active district judges and are eligible for reappointment.
The duties of a magistrate judges are determined by the district judges under whom they work. They assist the district judges by helping them prepare cases for trial and by presiding over discovery and pretrial proceedings. Magistrate judges also may preside as the judge in some circumstances. For example, they can conduct misdemeanor trials or act as special masters, which are temporary judges, in civil actions. Cases presided over by magistrate judges would otherwise be on a federal judge’s docket.
Serving as a magistrate judge does have limitations. Magistrates may not preside over felony criminal cases. Magistrate judges may also not preside over any case unless both parties agree. There are many other limitations that apply to magistrate judges because they are considered lower judges and consequently do not have the same powers of a federal district court judge.
Full-time magistrate judges serve eight-year terms, and part-time magistrate judges have four-year terms. Retirement is often not the end of a magistrate judge’s duties. If there is a district court that is has magistrate judges who are lacking experience, the court might call a magistrate judge out of retirement to work until a suitable replacement is found.
There is some controversy over the power of magistrate judges. Critics argue that magistrate judges should not have the authority they do because they are not nominated by the president or approved by the U.S. Senate. Despite this argument, the duties of magistrate judges continue to expand because of the increasing caseloads in the federal court system.