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Magistrate Judge History




I. History

The history of U.S. Magistrate Judges began in 1793, when Congress authorized circuit courts to appoint individuals to handle bail in federal criminal cases. These individuals became known as U.S. Commissioners. Commissioners were paid fees for their services and generally performed their duties in addition to their regular employment. During the early 19th century, Congress authorized district courts to appoint commissioners and expanded the authorities of commissioners to include issuing arrest and search warrants, conducting initial proceedings in criminal cases and setting bail. The system of commissioners worked well; however, over time, the Judicial Conference determined that the commissioner system needed to be restructured to create a new type of judicial officer called a magistrate for the purpose of alleviating the demands of district judges’ growing caseload and to establish statutory qualifications for magistrates. Therefore, in 1968, Congress passed the Federal Magistrates Act, 28 U.S.C. § 631 et seq., establishing the magistrate position which replaced the system of U.S. Commissioners, giving magistrates the same authorities granted to commissioners and expanding the magistrate’s authority to handle pretrial matters. Throughout the late 20th century, Congress continued to expand the authorities of magistrates because they became vital to the court’s ability to manage the growing demands of the court system’s caseload. In 1990, Congress passed the Judicial Improvements Act, which among other things, changed the title of a United States magistrate to "United States Magistrate Judge" in order to reflect more accurately the responsibilities and duties of the office and to make the nomenclature consistent with that of other non-Article III federal judicial officers such as bankruptcy judges, tax court judges and claims court judges.

Unlike Article III district judges who are nominated by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, magistrate judges are appointed by the district court on the recommendation of a court-appointed panel composed of lawyers and non-lawyers whose responsibility is to propose the names of the five best-qualified candidates for the magistrate judge position. Upon the panel’s recommendation, the judges of the district court select a candidate by majority vote.

Full-time magistrate judges serve 8-year terms, while part-time magistrate judges serve 4-year terms. Both are often reappointed to subsequent terms; and, in fact, Judicial Conference policy recognizes that an incumbent magistrate judge who has performed well in the position should be reappointed to another term of office.

Magistrate judges are assigned to a court by location. In 1971, the Judicial Conference authorized two part-time magistrates to serve the District of Maine - one in Portland and one in Bangor. In 1972, a second part-time position was authorized to serve in Portland. In 1982, one magistrate position in Portland was converted to a full-time position; and, in 1989, the Bangor position was converted to full time. The second part-time magistrate position in Portland was discontinued in 2007. (That position was a clerk/magistrate position, and the incumbent was also the Clerk of the Court.) Today, the District of Maine employs two full-time magistrate judges – one in Portland and one in Bangor.

Magistrate judges are vital to the Court’s ability to efficiently adjudicate and resolve cases. Their contributions to the judiciary are significant; their duties are extensive, and they are highly proficient in a broad range of judicial functions in a diverse and often complicated mix of cases. Their early involvement in most pretrial stages is essential to the district judges’ ability to perform their constitutional and statutory obligations. The pace of their work is demanding and challenging because of the expedited nature of the proceedings and because every case is unique. The individuals serving as magistrate judges possess a special judicial temperament comprised of patience, flexibility, adaptability, legal knowledge, integrity, experience, objectivity, ability to treat all litigants with dignity, and respect for the law.

In addition to their judicial duties, magistrate judges in the District of Maine participate in court governance alongside the district judges and their input is highly valued. Magistrate judges also serve on national and local committees that benefit the federal judiciary and the District of Maine.


II. Duties of the Magistrate Judges


The jurisdiction and powers of magistrate judges are set forth in 28 U.S.C. § 636, and their principal role is to assist the district judges by handling a variety of pretrial matters in civil and criminal cases making them vital to the Court’s ability to effectively manage and timely resolve its caseload. Magistrate judges handle nearly all aspects of the Court’s docket in five expansive and significant categories of work including:

1. Pretrial matters and proceedings in criminal cases;

2. Pretrial matters and proceedings in civil cases;

3. Recommended decisions on motions for dispositive relief;

4. Trials in civil consent cases and misdemeanor criminal cases; and

5. Other duties.


A. Pretrial Matters in Criminal Cases


Criminal matters, with the exception of felony trials and sentencings, constitute a substantial portion of the magistrate judges’ workload in the District of Maine. Magistrate judges routinely:

1. Issue warrants of arrest, search warrants and summonses;

2. Advise defendants of the right to counsel and the nature of the criminal charges;

3. Conduct initial appearances and preliminary exams;

4. Hold detention hearings and issue orders establishing conditions of release or orders detaining persons pending trial;

5. Determine eligibility and appoint counsel for indigent defendants;

6. Conduct arraignments on felony indictments;

7. Conduct evidentiary hearings and prepare recommended decisions on motions to suppress;

8. Enter orders on a variety of pretrial motions;

9. Conduct preliminary revocation proceedings; and

10. Take pleas and sentence defendants for petty offenses and misdemeanor offenses.


B. Pretrial Matters in Civil Cases


Magistrate judges also serve a critical role in the Court’s ability to achieve just and efficient resolution of civil cases because they are often the first judicial officer to review new civil cases. They craft scheduling orders that balance the needs of the case with the need to manage the progress of the case. Their early and active involvement benefits the district judges, the litigants and counsel in ensuring a timely and just resolution of the case, minimizing delays and helping the court avoid backlogs. Magistrate judges in the District of Maine are ordinarily responsible for the following civil case duties:

1. Screening civil cases;

2. Establishing and entering scheduling orders;

3. Conducting oral argument and motion hearings;

4. Deciding pretrial motions;

5. Triaging emergency motions for temporary restraining orders or ex parte motions for writ of attachment and trustee process;

6. Entering confidentiality orders and other procedural orders;

7. Resolving discovery disputes;

8. Conducting judicial settlement conferences; and

9. Conducting final pretrial conferences and trial management conferences.


C. Recommended Decisions on Dispositive Matters


Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), district judges often designate magistrate judges to conduct hearings, review the record and submit to the district judge proposed findings of fact and recommendations for disposition in civil and criminal cases which are called “Report and Recommended Decisions.” In Maine, district judges regularly refer motions to dismiss, motions for summary judgment, motions for injunctive relief, motions to suppress, and other motions that seek final adjudication of claims, parties, criminal charges or evidence to the magistrate judges for a report and recommended decision. The magistrate judge’s report and recommended decision outlines the issues in dispute and recommends to the district judge the appropriate resolution of the issues. The parties are given an opportunity to respond to the recommended decision and then the report is submitted to the district judge for consideration and final decision. The work involved in issuing recommended decisions is complex, time-consuming and exacting because the magistrate judge’s recommendation must set forth facts, interpret and apply the law to the facts of the case and recommend a particular adjudication of the issues to the district judge.


D. Trials


Upon the consent of the parties, a magistrate judge may conduct any or all proceedings and order the entry of judgment in a civil case. Litigants in civil cases can benefit from consenting to trial before a magistrate judge because magistrate judges can often conduct civil trials earlier than the district judges who must conduct felony criminal trials first because criminal cases take priority over civil cases due to the statutory time periods within which criminal trials must commence. Magistrate judges can also schedule trial for a date certain. In criminal cases, magistrate judges may conduct trials of persons charged with misdemeanor offenses pursuant to 18 U.S.C § 3401.


E. Other Duties and Responsibilities


Title 28 U.S.C. § 636 provides that magistrate judges may be assigned “other duties” that are “not inconsistent with the Constitution and the laws of the United States.” Other duties often include presiding over jury selection, empaneling the grand jury and taking grand jury risings, miscellaneous matters such as IRS enforcement actions, post-judgment duties such as disclosure hearings or attorney fees awards and a variety of other duties that may be referred by the district judges.

While the District of Maine’s two magistrate judges perform all of these duties, the Court has allocated some of their workload to better balance the work between them.


The Magistrate Judge in Bangor is responsible for:


• All applications for post-trial relief filed by persons convicted of criminal offenses for preparation of reports and recommended decisions in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B);


• Prisoner petitions challenging conditions of confinement and to conduct hearings, if necessary, and submit reports and recommended decisions in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). This portion of the Court’s caseload has grown 73% since 2008; and


• One-third of the Court’s Social Security caseload for reports and recommended decisions, when that caseload exceeds 16 cases per quarter.


The Magistrate Judge in Portland is responsible for:

Two-thirds of all the Social Security Appeal cases that are filed in the District, which at times has accounted for as much as 24% of the Court’s civil caseload. Social Security cases are fact- and time-intensive.