What Happens in Magistrate Court Hearings?

Renee Booker

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.

Magistrate court hearings may involve the signing of warrants.
Magistrate court hearings may involve the signing of warrants.

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.

Magistrates act like a judge in lower level courts.
Magistrates act like a judge in lower level courts.

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.

Magistrate court hearings are typically reserved for preliminary matters in both civil and criminal cases.
Magistrate court hearings are typically reserved for preliminary matters in both civil and criminal cases.

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Discussion Comments


After reading this article, it very well informs me that all this time after attending court hearings I never was informed of whether my case or others was being heard by a magistrate or judge.

I've never heard of a court official being addressed as a magistrate, it's always judge or your honor.

It also goes to show that just because you are an appointed official does not mean that you are not being influenced by those of higher authority.

I'm writing a paper on Magistrate Judges and their impact on the judicial system. This lets me know that while there is a system in place for the mj's, they really have very to little authority in decision making which should be their moral right because of their title and oath to uphold the law.


I had no idea that higher level judges here in the US got to appoint magistrates to a county court. I suppose by giving judges the power to do that, we let them ensure there will be other serving that share their opinions.

I actually think this is kind of a bad idea. Judges are elected, so why should magistrates be appointed? They still make rulings and participate in the judicial system.

It's also possible the magistrates could have their rulings unduly influenced by their appointing judge. As the article said, they're only appointed for a limited amount of time and might want to do everything they can to get reappointed.


@KaBoom - It's very possible that your friends may have dealt with a magistrate and not a judge. I'm not sure how you would be able to tell in a courtroom though.

I have to say, magistrate seems to be a popular term on television. I feel like in almost every science fiction series I've watched, if the main characters encounter a criminal court hearing in an alien judicial system, it's run by a "magistrate." I think that's actually where I've heard the term used the most!


It's interesting that the very same term can mean something completely different in different judicial system. In the United States, it seems like magistrates deal with more low level stuff. But in Mexico, a hearing with a magistrate is like a Supreme Court hearing in the United States.

I have to admit, I've actually never heard the term magistrate used at all here in the US. I've had friends that have gone to small claims court and for traffic citations. Usually they refer to the person who proceeding over the hearing as a judge, but maybe it was really done by a magistrate.

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