The function of a magistrate differs throughout the world. Due to the difference in the function of a magistrate from one country to the next, what happens in magistrate court hearings can be significantly different as well. The most common function of a magistrate, however, is to act as a judge in lower level courts. In that capacity, magistrate court hearings will typically include setting bail, signing warrants, and presiding over preliminary hearings in civil or criminal cases.
A magistrate is usually a judicial officer who is appointed by the elected or presiding judges. In the United States federal court system, for example, magistrates are appointed by the life-term judges, who are appointed by the President of the United States. U.S. federal magistrates are appointed to serve a term of four or eight years. Within the United States state courts, magistrates are often appointed by the elected judges to serve a definite term of years.
Within both the federal and state courts in the United States, magistrate court hearings are typically reserved for preliminary matters in both civil and criminal cases. In a criminal case, an initial hearing or a bail hearing may often take place in front of a magistrate. Magistrates may preside over motion hearings or pretrial hearings in civil matters. Small claims trials and traffic court trials may also be part of what happens in magistrate court hearings.
A magistrate in the United States, as well as many European countries, has all the same judicial powers that an elected or appointed judge has. A hearing held in front of a magistrate, therefore, has the same force and effect as a hearing in front of a judge. A magistrate's ruling is binding on the parties. In these countries, the main difference between a magistrate and a judge is that the magistrate is appointed and serves at the direction of the formally elected or appointed judges within the court system.
In other parts of the world, magistrate court hearings are significantly different than in the United States. In Mexico, for example, a magistrate is actually the term used for the judges who reside in the highest courts below the Supreme Court in the country. Hearings held in magistrate court in Mexico are actually reviews of lower court rulings. In China, a magistrate is actually the administrative head of a county, although he does have limited judicial powers as well.