The Power to Award Sanctions: Does It Belong in the Hands of Magistrate Judges?

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

Since the enactment of the Federal Magistrates Act (Act)(1) in 1968, United States magistrate judges have assumed many of the duties and responsibilities of district judges.(2) Magistrate judges are often called upon, for example, to rule on discovery and suppression of evidence motions, issue reports and recommendations on dispositive motions, adjudicate petty offenses and misdemeanor cases, and even, with the consent of the parties, preside over the trial of civil actions.(3) It is no exaggeration to say, as the Supreme Court recently did, that "`the role of the magistrate in today's federal judicial system is nothing less than indispensable.'"(4)

The Act authorizes a magistrate judge, upon designation by the district judge,(5) "to hear and determine any pretrial matter" except for eight enumerated exceptions.(6) Rule 72 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (Rule), which implements the Act,(7) similarly authorizes magistrate judges to "hear and determine" any "[n]ondispositive" civil matter.(8) Upon properly filed objections,(9) such determinations are subject to review by the district court under a clearly erroneous or contrary to law standard.(10)

Magistrate judges do not have the authority, under the Act or Rule 72, to hear and determine dispositive matters.(11) Instead, they must make recommendations to the district judge for disposition.(12) These recommendations are subject to de novo review by the district judge, with no deference to the magistrate judge's recommendation.(13)

In recent years, a disagreement has arisen in the courts over whether magistrate judges have jurisdiction to hear and determine motions for sanctions or, instead, must make recommendations for disposition to the district judge.(14) Four circuits -- the Second, Fifth, Ninth, and Tenth -- all have held that magistrate judges can enter sanctions orders.(15) More recently, the Sixth and Seventh Circuits have disagreed and held that magistrate judges are limited to recommending the disposition of sanctions motions.(16) The courts of appeals also have disagreed on the related, threshold issue of whether a postjudgment sanctions ruling based on pretrial conduct is even a "pretrial matter" subject to review by a magistrate judge under the Act or Rule 72.(17)

Resolution of these related issues is important for at least two reasons. First, either a magistrate judge or a district judge must decide each of the thousands of motions, including sanctions motions, filed each year.18 If magistrate judges can decide these motions, subject only to review under a clearly erroneous or contrary to law standard, the workload of district judges will be reduced significantly, leaving them free to turn their attention to other important matters, including trials.(19)

The second reason this issue is significant is that the narrow reading of magistrate judge jurisdiction by the Sixth and Seventh Circuits runs counter to congressional expansion of this jurisdiction since enactment of the Act in 1968.(20) This tendency toward restricting jurisdiction, if unchallenged, could pose even greater concerns for the already overtaxed federal district courts.(21)

This Article first examines the history and operation of the Act and Rule 72.(22) Second, it analyzes the prevalence of sanctions motions and the conflicting case law on whether magistrate judges have jurisdiction to enter orders regarding such motions.(23) Finally, the Article concludes that the text of the Act and Rule 72, the legislative history of the Act and Rule 72, practical considerations, and policy grounds all support the proposal that magistrate judges have jurisdiction to enter sanctions orders.(24)

II. History and Operation of the Federal Magistrates Act and Rule 72

A. History of the Federal Magistrates Act

In 1968, Congress enacted the Federal Magistrates Act to replace the outdated United States commissioner system(25) and to free district judges for more important tasks, including presiding over trials. …