United States Magistrates in the Federal Courts: Subordinate Judges

By Christopher E. Smith | Go to book overview

5
District A: Status Conflicts, Unmet Expectations, and Limited Formal Authority

District A has eight full-time magistrates and fourteen active judges serving in four different courthouses. The main courthouse contains five magistrates and eleven judges located downtown in a major city (population over 1,000,000). The three satellite courthouses, located in medium-sized cities (populations 80,000-150,000), each have one active judge paired with one full-time magistrate. A visit to one small courthouse revealed that, like small courthouses in other districts, the judges' and magistrates' chambers were close to each other. In such small court buildings, this proximity facilitates contact and communication between district judges and magistrates and can enhance working relationships, if the judge respects the magistrate's capabilities and is flexible about the exercise of magistrates' judicial authority. In the large court building, the magistrates and the judges are scattered around several floors of a large, urban federal office building. The opportunities for personal contact and concomitant familiarity in relationships are diminished by the physical environment. For example, a judge or magistrate with chambers and a courtroom on the seventh floor, whose normal work routine is thereby limited to taking the elevator every day from the ground floor to and from the seventh floor, would have little reason to pass by the offices of or otherwise encounter other judicial officers. The time-consuming travel process of waiting for an elevator in a large building further discourages the potential for personal contact through specific visits to judges' offices. In addition, the environment and large organization make it difficult for new magistrates to become acquainted with all of the judges. Thus, some magistrates rely upon the district's full-time administrator, the Court Executive, for advice on how best to approach and communicate with particular judges.

In any district, magistrates' task assignments and relationships with judges are influenced by the method of task assignment adopted within a particular district or courthouse. John Cooley, a former magistrate, presented the possible ways to design an effective task referral system 1 and Seron documented the ways in which districts currently assign tasks to magistrates 2: (1) random assignment; (2)

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