United States Magistrates in the Federal Courts: Subordinate Judges

By Christopher E. Smith | Go to book overview
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Districts C and D: Authoritative Independence


District C has five full-time magistrates and eleven active judges in two courthouses. There are four magistrates and ten judges within the large courthouse which was the focus of study, while a judge and magistrate are paired in the smaller courthouse. The large courthouse is located downtown in a large city (population greater than 600,000).

Within the large courthouse there is relatively little contact between the judges and the magistrates. The magistrates are all located on one floor, while the judges are scattered over several floors and can be as far as eight floors away from the magistrates. The magistrates noted that, other than bumping into judges in the elevator in the morning, they have little reason to speak with the judges personally or by telephone.

A primary reason for the dearth of personal contact between judges and magistrates, in addition to the physical setting of the large courthouse, is that the court's system for utilizing magistrates does not foster continued contact between specific judges and magistrates. Rather than assigning cases to the magistrates through any system of pairings, tasks are sent to magistrates by blind rotation. A judge will send the preliminary tasks for a civil case to the clerk's office for assignment to a magistrate and the clerk assigns the matter to the next magistrate in line to receive an assignment. Thus, rather than work for a particular judge, the magistrates must work for all of the judges.

In other districts, such an assignment system would raise accountability concerns, because judges would not know exactly what each magistrate was working on and some judges might come to believe that magistrates were not spending enough time doing tasks for particular judges. Indeed, the assignment system generates risks of diminished coordination within the court and one magistrate has complained that the system can lead either to underutilization of the magistrates or improper use. For example, a judge could misuse the system by sending a long, difficult consent trial to a magistrate and


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