A Brief History of the U.S. Magistrates and Their Powers
Any understanding of the development of the role of United States magistrates requires familiarity with the historical, statutory, and case law elements underlying the establishment and evolution of the magistrate system. Although the office of United States Magistrate has a relatively brief history, the historical antecedents and political factors underlying the creation of the magistrate system have had a profound effect upon the design of that system and, consequently, the evolution of the magistrate role. In addition, a series of legislative and judicial decisions regarding the appropriate authority for these subordinate judges has further defined the roles of magistrates in the district courts.
The predecessors to the federal magistrates were the United States Commissioners. In an act passed in 1793, Congress provided that certain individuals "learned in law" could have responsibility for taking bail in federal criminal cases. 1 These individuals were officially designated as "commissioners" in 1817. During the next century, Congress gradually expanded the duties of the commissioners. Commissioners were appointed directly by district courts and were given responsibility for issuing warrants and fining persons convicted of petty offenses on federal land, including national parks and military installations. The commissioners, who were not required to be lawyers, were paid through a fee schedule that compensated them according to the number cases that they handled. 2
As a result of a study conducted by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (Administrative Office) in the 1940s, minor changes in the commissioner system, including a simplified fee schedule, were recommended by the Judicial Conference of the United States (Judicial Conference) and adopted by Congress. In the late 1950s, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee recommended that the