Academic journal article Justice System Journal

Unaccountable Justice? the Decision Making of Magistrate Judges in the Federal District Courts

Academic journal article Justice System Journal

Unaccountable Justice? the Decision Making of Magistrate Judges in the Federal District Courts

Article excerpt

Modern federal district courts delegate vast decision-making powers throughout criminal and civil cases to magistrate judges-judicial actors that, unlike other federal judges, serve without an Article III political appointment. Through the lens of principal-agency theory, this study seeks to rectify the relative paucity of systematic work on these actors by using original filing and motion-level district court data to examine magistrates' decision making empirically. Our results support our expectations that magistrates are often constrained by the preferences of the district judges in and the institutional characteristics of their district while issuing reports and recommendations and serving as assigned judges by the consent of the parties.

In early 2011, the Washington Post argued that increasing case filings, an uptick in judicial retirements, and a high number of judicial vacancies have combined to form the perfect storm of judicial emergency in the lower courts of the federal judiciary (Markon and Murray, 2011). Nowhere are these concerns more salient than in the U.S. District Courts, the 94 trial courts in the federal judicial system, where there are now over 350,000 civil and criminal filings per year (Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, 2011) and numerous unfilled judgeships. These increasing pressures on federal trial courts are well documented (Galanter, 2004), as are some of the techniques and mechanisms that government officials, lawyers, and scholars have presented to address them (Galanter, 1985; Resnik, 1982). We focus here on one of the most important, understudied, and, perhaps, controversial of these: the advent of the role and use of magistrate judges in federal district courts.

Over forty years ago, Congress authorized the creation of magistrate judges in federal district courts to help these courts more efficiently process cases. Over time, the responsibilities of these judges have increased, so much so that these judges are now disposing of over 1 million civil and criminal matters in district courts (including, e.g., motions and hearings) per year (Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, 2011). As the quantity of delegation to magistrates increases, however, so too expands the potential for controversy. Unlike traditional district judges, magistrates are not Article III federal judges nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. This raises a number of important concerns about the decision making of these actors and the political and institutional accountability that they face-concerns that have, until now, gone virtually unaddressed in systematic political science scholarship.

Relying primarily on principal-agency theory, we argue that magistrates are agents to Article III district court judges and, as such, ought to be constrained in their decision making by these principals. To examine this, we use original filing-level civil law data from twenty federal district courts and analyze the decisions of magistrates in two important and very distinct contexts: 1) as a case's primary assigned judge by the consent of the parties in the case and 2) as an assistant to a case's assigned district court judge, providing a report and recommendation to the case's district court judge on the outcome of important motions in the case. Our results support many of our expectations.

By way of preview, in our examination of the direction of case outcomes, we find that magistrates serving as a case's assigned judge temper their decisions based on the ideological preferences of their district principals. Second, our results reveal that district judges are less likely to adopt the recommendations of magistrates when district judges have relatively low caseloads.

Theorizing on the Role of Decision Making of Magistrates

The relationship between a magistrate judge and the district court that he or she serves in can be described as one between an agent and a principal. Principal-agency theory is now widely used to explain hierarchical relationships within political science and the judiciary, including, for example, higher courts to lower courts (Songer, Segal, and Cameron, 1994; Benesh and Martinek, 2002; Randazzo, 2008; George and Yoon, 2003; Corley, 2009), justices to their clerks (Ditslear and Baum, 2001; Black and Boyd, 2011; Peppers, 2006), and courts to other political branches (Lindquist and Haire, 2006). …

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