The term “federal magistrate” most frequently refers to a judge who is appointed to a fixed term position in a United States federal district court. A federal magistrate in this context is a judge who presides over district court proceedings for a period of eight years. Magistrate judges are selected by more senior district court judges, who themselves have been appointed to lifetime positions by the President of the United States. The term can also refer to judges in the Australian Federal Magistrates Court, a federal court that was established in the late 1990s as a means of easing the Federal Court of Australia’s caseload. In either case, a federal magistrate’s main purpose is to shoulder some of the more minor or simpler cases in the increasingly inundated American and Australian federal courts.
Court systems in both the United States and Australia are based on two parallel bodies of law: one at the state level, and one at the national level. National law, also called federal law, applies uniformly across the country. States must uphold the federal law, but can choose to add or modify it, within reason, at the state level. Laws from state to state may vary, then, but federal law is always consistent, and it always trumps.
Each system has its own set of courts, as well. The American and Australian systems are set up a bit differently, but for the most part, cases that involve state law must be brought in state-level courts, while cases that implicate more sweeping national law must be brought in federal courts. Federal courthouses exist in most communities alongside state courthouses, though the two do not share resources or judicial staff.
In the United States, judges are selected to preside over federal courtrooms by the president. Federal judges are appointed for lifetime positions, and are not subject to removal except in cases of gross misconduct. Most of the time, lifetime appointments are only made for a specific number of openings, and do not fluctuate with caseload or docket size. Each court is allowed a certain number of federal judges, and that is it.
The advent of the federal magistrate judge system in the mid-1960s was designed to make the federal hearing process more efficient without having to create new lifetime positions. Under the program, existing federal judges together elect judges from lower, sometimes state, courts to serve on fixed-appointment terms hearing federal cases. These judges, whose term typically spans eight years, are called federal magistrates. A federal magistrate usually conducts pre-trial matters, including pre-trial hearings and attorney conferences. Magistrates are usually authorized to conduct full trials, as well, but must often obtain the consent of the parties first.
Efficiency is also a founding aim of the Australian Federal Magistrates Court, which Australian lawmakers created in 1999. Litigation in the primary federal court system was growing backlogged, and lawmakers sought a way to divert simpler, less contentious cases to a sort of “fast track” resolution. Their solution was a federal magistrate court, which is staffed by magistrate judges.
Most of the workload taken on by the Federal Magistrates Court is domestic and family law related, but a wide variety of other cases can be referred to a federal magistrate, as well. Unlike American magistrates, the Australian counterparts are equal in appointment and weight to their peers in the larger federal court system. The primary difference between an Australian magistrate judge and a typical federal court judge is the complexity and scope of the workload.