Legal Notes

Article excerpt

Roell v. Withrow, 123 S.Ct. 1696 (2003), and the Federal Magistrate Act of 1979

In an effort to ease the burden on the federal judiciary of mounting caseloads, the Federal Magistrate Act of 1979 authorizes magistrate judges to "conduct any or all proceedings in a jury or nonjury civil matter and order the entry of judgment in the case, when specially designated-by the district court" and when acting "[u]pon the consent of the parties." 28 U.S.C. 636(c)(1) (1979). Since President Carter signed the act into law, magistrate judges have been hearing more and more matters in the district courts. In fact, without the availability of magistrate judges to preside over a wide-ranging variety of proceedings, the federal judiciary would likely be overwhelmed.

The use of magistrate judges is not limitless. Before a magistrate judge may preside over a civil trial, both parties must affirmatively elect to forgo their right to have an Article III judge hear the matter. While the procedures for this consideration and acceptance are perceived as mere formalities, in Roell v. Withrow, 123 S.Ct. 1696 (2003), the Supreme Court was faced with a classic judicial dilemma in statutory interpretation and the enforcement of rules of procedure: mandating strict enforcement of a procedural rule that would give rise to an "unjust" result, or interpreting the intent of Congress in enacting a statute to discount a "technical omission" and lead to the result Congress surely intended.

Jon Withrow, a Texas state prisoner, brought an action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against three members of the prison's medical staff (Roell, Reagan, and Garibay), alleging that they had deliberately disregarded his medical needs in violation of the Eighth Amendment. During a preliminary hearing the presiding magistrate judge told the parties that they could have her rather than the district judge preside over the entire case. While Withrow agreed orally (and later in writing), the Texas attorney general's office stated that they would consider the option and respond in writing.

Without waiting for the attorney general's response, the district judge referred the case to the magistrate judge for final disposition, pursuant to the Federal Magistrates Act. The referral included the caveat that "all defendants be given an opportunity to consent to the jurisdiction of the magistrate judge," and that the referral order would be vacated if any of the defendants did not consent as required by 28 U.S.C. §636(c)(1). Defendant Reagan, who was represented by private counsel, gave written consent to the referral. Defendants Roell and Garibay, who were represented by the attorney general's office, did not respond to the referral.

Despite the lack of express consent to the referral, the case proceeded to trial in front of the magistrate judge. At trial, a jury found for the defendants/petitioners. On appeal the court of appeals sua sponte remanded the case to the district court to "determine whether the parties consented to proceed before the magistrate judge and, if so, whether the consents were oral or written." 288 F.3d 199 (5th Cir. 2002). Following the remand to the district court, Roell and Garibay filed a letter of consent with the district court, stating that "they consented to all proceedings before this date before the United States Magistrate judge, including disposition of their motion for summary judgment and trial."

The district court judge referred the matter back to the magistrate judge who presided over the trial, who found that Roell and Garibay, "by their actions clearly implied their consent to the jurisdiction of a magistrate." Roell v. Withrow, 123 S.Ct. at 1700. Nonetheless, the magistrate judge found that (a) given the 5th Circuit's precedent, "consent cannot be implied by the conduct of the parties," (b) Roell and Garibay did not provide express consent, and therefore, (c) the magistrate judge had lacked jurisdiction to hear the case. …