What is the Magistrates Act?

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  • Written By: Jason C. Chavis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
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  • Last Modified Date: 28 February 2020
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The Magistrates Act is legislation signed into law in 1968 by President Lyndon Johnson which created the first expanse of the United States judiciary since the Evarts Act of 1891. The overall purpose of the law was to mandate the creation of federal magistrate judge positions to replace commissioners of various districts around the country. Prior to the establishment of the Magistrates Act, each judicial district in the federal government was suffering from a lack of conformity. Certain officers within the federal commissioner system handled different aspects of legal matters, depending on the district. In addition, compensation and standards for each district were not relative to each other.

Following hearings by the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1965, Congress determined it was appropriate to reorganized the federal judiciary, ultimately resulting in the drafting of the Magistrates Act. Commissioners prior to the act were paid a sum based upon each case he or she heard. This resulted in many individuals without legal backgrounds taking up the positions, leading to questions of judicial competence. Congress established a salary system and a requirement that each magistrate be admitted into the bar association of the state in which he or she serves. Additional laws were amended in 1979 and 1990 to expand the role of the magistrate judges.


In its most basic sense, the Magistrates Act establishes the rules and standards by which a federal magistrate judge would operate. District judges assign duties to the magistrate judge as they see fit, allowing them to oversee federal proceedings except in the case of criminal felonies. This allows the streamlining of matters on the dockets of districts. Each position of a federal magistrate judge lasts for a term of eight years, with unlimited reappointment. If the district sees fit, additional part-time magistrate judges can be added for terms of four years.

The overall duties of a judge under the Magistrates Act are authorized by a body known as the Judicial Conference of the United States. Most commonly, these judges are responsible for overseeing preliminary hearings in civil cases, establishing bail amounts for criminal court and issuing warrants to federal agents. The only criminal procedures that can be overseen by a magistrate judge within a federal district are those of misdemeanors. However, the defendant has the right to appeal the decision of a magistrate to a district judge.


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