United States Magistrates in the Federal Courts: Subordinate Judges

By Christopher E. Smith | Go to book overview

4
Magistrates' Roles in District Courts

In order to gain an understanding of the roles of magistrates within the federal courts, this study utilized a participant observation methodology that placed the author in constant, personal contact with magistrates during all working hours. By selecting magistrates in both large and small courthouses as observation subjects, this study analyzed the behavior and roles of magistrates within the general institutional contexts in which the subordinate judges work. In the examples presented by the four illustrative districts in the chapters that follow, the court environments under study ranged from a lone magistrate paired with a single judge in medium-sized city (population 100,000) to five magistrates working for eleven judges in a large courthouse building located in a major city (population over 1,000,000). Examining the magistrates within different contexts is important for a number of reasons which will be further illuminated in subsequent chapters. For example, the size of the courthouse and number of judicial actors (i.e., magistrates, judges, lawyers, clerks, etc.) working within the courthouse can inhibit or enhance familiarity and communication between the judicial actors. The level of contact can, in turn, affect the development of role conceptions and expectations concerning the magistrates. In addition, a location in a large city can complicate the magistrates' role development by expanding the size of the relevant legal community and, consequently, detracting from the magistrates' ability to become well-known to the large local bar.

Any analysis of magistrates' roles in the federal courts requires an understanding of the tasks, interactions, expectations, and resources that comprise the working lives of these lower judicial officers. Unlike studies of judges, such as the work of John Paul Ryan and his colleagues on state trial judges, in which scholars describe and analyze the "typical workday" of the judicial officer, this study makes clear that there is no "typical workday for United States magistrates nationally. 1 The magistrate system was designed for flexible utilization by district judges according to the needs of their respective districts. In addition, control of the magistrates, including task assignments,

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