On the front lines:

the position of U.S. magistrate judge

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  • | 12:00 p.m. September 30, 2002
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by Timothy J. Corrigan

United States District Judge

Elsewhere in the Bar Bulletin is a public announcement that the Jacksonville Division of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida has not one, but an unprecedented two, openings for the position of United States magistrate judge. As a very recent occupant of that position, I have noticed that many attorneys, even those who regularly practice in federal court, do not fully understand the role of the magistrate judge in the federal court system. This article briefly discusses that role. I also take this opportunity to explain the selection process in the hope of encouraging all qualified persons to apply for the vacancies.

In 1990, Congress changed the title of this office from “United States magistrate” to “United States magistrate judge” to emphasize that the position is a judgeship. The term of office is eight years, but the judge can be reappointed upon satisfactory performance. By law, magistrate judges are given substantial authority to handle a wide range of both civil and criminal matters which come before the federal court. However, it is up to each district to determine the proper utilization of magistrate judges. Because of the heavy caseload in the Middle District of Florida, this district historically has given broad authority to magistrate judges, as evidenced by the lengthy provisions of Local Rule 6.01 which describe the “Duties of United States Magistrate Judges”. On the criminal side, magistrate judges conduct all initial appearances, arraignments, detention hearings and discovery hearings. Magistrate judges also often conduct evidentiary hearings on motions to suppress and other potentially dispositive criminal motions, rendering a report and recommendation concerning their disposition. Magistrate judges issue search warrants, take most of the felony guilty pleas, conduct misdemeanor trials and sentence misdemeanor defendants (they do not conduct felony trials or felony sentencings).

On the civil docket, magistrate judges consider and rule upon a broad variety of civil non-dispositive motions, which include discovery motions, motions regarding amendments to pleadings, motions to withdraw, motions to strike and practically anything else that a lawyer can dream up. Magistrate judges can also, on referral, issue reports and recommendations on dispositive motions, such as motions to dismiss, motions for summary judgment and motions for attorney’s fees. By custom, magistrate judges handle most aspects of admiralty cases and all social security cases. Finally, magistrate judges can exercise full jurisdiction over federal civil cases with the consent of the parties, meaning engaging in case management, ruling upon dispositive motions and conducting jury and non-jury trials. In consent cases, magistrate judges essentially stand in the shoes of a district judge and any appeal of their decisions lies directly with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals (in non-consent situations, appeals of magistrate judge decisions (which are rare) usually go to the district judge. However, many of the decisions magistrate judges make are subject to reversal only if clearly erroneous or contrary to law.)

Most criminal proceedings are conducted in open court; therefore, a magistrate judge spends a significant amount of time in court on criminal matters. However, the magistrate judge also is free to set civil motions for hearing as he or she sees fit. Overall, counting both chambers and court time, the magistrate judge probably spends a majority of his or her time on civil cases.

Magistrate judges have independence in organizing their chambers, establishing their calendar and in their decision making. Each judge employs two staff persons in chambers (either a judicial assistant and a law clerk or two law clerks at the judge’s discretion). In addition, the clerk’s office assigns a permanent courtroom deputy to the magistrate judge who is effectively also part of chambers staff. Each magistrate judge has his or her own courtroom adjacent to chambers.

In my almost six years as a magistrate judge, I found the work to be challenging, interesting and a great opportunity to render a valuable public service. Although my background was in civil practice, the opportunity to learn criminal law has been rewarding (vice-versa would apply as well). Because of the tremendous variety of issues and cases, the work is never boring (although like all jobs there are certain tedious aspects). The position combines the ability to do scholarly opinion writing with the need to be practical and to act quickly and decisively when required. There is also a good sense of collegiality and cooperation among all of the Judges in the Jacksonville Division.

The method of selection of magistrate judges is governed by 28 U.S.C. §631, et seq. Magistrate judges must be at least five year members in good standing of a bar of the highest court of a state and not related by blood or marriage to a judge of the appointing court. The Court appoints a merit selection panel (similar to a judicial nomination commission) to receive applications.

Although the applicable Judicial Conference regulations do not specify exactly how the merit selection panel is to proceed, traditionally the panel, relying upon the lengthy written application submitted by each applicant, will select certain applicants for a personal interview with the panel. Because there are two openings in Jacksonville, the panel will recommend to the Court no less than six and no more than ten applicants whom the panel deems to be best qualified. Those finalists will then be interviewed by all of the district judges in the District, sitting en banc, and the district judges will make the final selection of the two nominees. Those nominees will be required to undergo a FBI background check and an IRS tax check. The FBI background check is comprehensive, entailing both written questions and a personal interview with the nominee and others who know the nominee both personally and professionally. The information sought in the FBI background check is similar to the information all attorneys provided to the Florida Bar as part of their background check before becoming Florida lawyers. Contrary to what some may suppose, disclosure to the FBI of some relatively minor incident in the past will not necessarily be disqualifying. It is ultimately up to the judges of the Court (and not the FBI) to determine whether the person is qualified to be named as a magistrate judge.

A recent publication by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, entitled “The Selection, Appointment, and Reappointment of United States Magistrate Judges” (limited copies available at the Clerk’s Office) lists certain criteria such as personal characteristics, legal skills and professional background that may be considered in evaluating applicants. Scholarship, type of law practice and knowledge of the federal court system are also considered. The pamphlet reminds panel members that “during their deliberations, the members should bear in mind the judicial nature of the office of United States Magistrate Judge” and “bear in mind that the essential roles of a magistrate judge are to dispense justice and to assist the judges of the district courts in disposing of the court’s caseload effectively and efficiently.”

Magistrate judges are on the “front lines” of federal practice and play an extremely important role. I encourage all interested and qualified persons to seriously consider applying for these positions. The deadline is Nov. 4 and the Public Notice is found elsewhere in this newspaper and on the Court’s website at www.flmd.uscourts.gov.



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