If you are not a frequent flyer in federal court, you may not be familiar with how magistrate judges operate in that venue. This post provides a general overview of the differences between district court judges and magistrate judges, as well as insight into appearing before a magistrate judge by consent.
What is a Magistrate Judge?
In federal court, there are two different types of judges: district court judges and magistrate judges. While both categories have excellent jurists, they differ based on the kinds of cases the judge may decide and from where the authority for the office arises.
District court judges, (or article III judges as they are sometimes called), are federal judges that have been appointed to the bench by Presidential nomination, after Senate confirmation. These judges are often called “article III” judges because their authority and existence comes from article III of the federal Constitution. These judges have a lifetime appointment and full authority to decide matters before them. For a funny spoof on this concept, click here.
Magistrate judges were added to the courts in order to provide assistance to article III judges. Article I of the federal constitution gives Congress the power to establish tribunals “inferior to the Supreme Court” and technically, magistrate judges fall into this category (they may sometimes be called “article I judges”). Magistrate judges find authority for their office through statute (28 U.S.C. § 631, et seq.) and have the power to perform very specific duties.
They are also selected in a different way. Rather than being appointed by the President, Magistrate judges apply for an opening. Candidates are whittled down through a merit selection system, and ultimately chosen by the district court judges.
Magistrate judges have specific authority by statute and local rule. A district court judge can delegate certain issues to a magistrate judge to decide. Magistrate judges can also conduct all the proceedings in a civil case if the parties consent.
How Might my Case Get Before a Magistrate Judge?
In the District of Colorado, cases are usually randomly assigned to judges. It used to be that a case was first assigned to an “article III” judge. As of December 1, 2015, however, magistrate judges are included in this initial assignment. Now, if a case is filed in federal court, it might be randomly assigned to a magistrate judge.
Because of their limited authority to decide issues/cases, if your case is first assigned to a magistrate judge, one of the first things you’ll be asked to do is file a form on consent. Regardless of whether you consent, filing a consent form is mandatory.
Even if your case is not initially assigned to a magistrate judge, you will still be notified of the opportunity to have your case handled by a magistrate judge and must fill out the consent form as well.
The consent form in the District of Colorado has two check boxes. One indicates all parties consent to have a magistrate judge decide the case. The other box indicates that at least one (maybe all or more than one) of the parties objects to consent jurisdiction. The parties (or their attorneys) must sign the consent form and file it with the Court within a specified period of time.
What Happens if I Consent?
If the parties all consent, the magistrate judge will act in place of the district court judge. This means that the magistrate judge’s orders won’t go through another level of review before they can be appealed. The magistrate judge’s judgment will be treated just like a judgment from the district court judge and can be appealed directly to the Circuit Court of Appeals once final.
What Happens if I Don’t Consent?
If at least one party decides to withhold consent, the case will get reassigned to a district court judge. The magistrate judge won’t know who specifically objected, so there is no fear of offending the magistrate judge by withholding consent. The district court judge might still refer certain matters to the magistrate judge to decide at first. For example, the district court may refer all discovery disputes to the magistrate judge first, or ask the magistrate judge to provide a Recommendation for how the district court judge should decide an important motion.
Most importantly, this means that even if a magistrate judge decides an issue, it is generally subject to review and approval by the district court judge.
Why Might I Want to Consent?
If your case is initially assigned to a magistrate judge, you know who is going to adjudicate your case. If you don’t consent, you will “roll the dice” on getting before a district court judge who may or may not be more favorable to your case. While all judges are well-qualified and capable, there may be strategy involved in such a decision.
Generally, consenting to jurisdiction before a magistrate judge is likely to mean your case is going to move quicker. For one, magistrate judges will never be handling felony criminal trials (not even by consent), so all those cases must be on an article III judge’s docket. Felony criminal trials may take priority in the district court judge’s courtroom, meaning your civil trial date may be pushed back, or the ruling on your motion to dismiss or summary judgment motion may take longer. Because cases can already move very slowly in federal court, this may be a consideration.
Consent jurisdiction may also be a good idea to save resources. Once the parties consent, they agree that everything is going through only one round of review. If the magistrate judge is hearing the matter by consent, once the order is final in the case, it can be appealed directly to the appellate court without having to go through another round of briefing and decision by the district court judge.
Magistrate judges are well-qualified, good judges. And they are just that—federal judges, typically with vast experience. If you have consented to appear before a magistrate judge, show the judge due respect and know that you are in capable hands.
Featured Image: ”Justice” by Pixabay.
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