Magistrate Judges: Efficient or Just Plain Unconstitutional?

Posted by: Elise Adams, Kaitlyn Ayers, Lyndsey Adkins, Donna Berlinski and Haia Abdel

Picture1A magistrate judge is an Article I officer with the jurisdiction to preside over criminal misdemeanor trials and civil jury and nonjury trials with the consent of the parties. Magistrate judges exercise many of the same powers as federal district judges; they decide motions, hear evidence, instruct juries, and render final decisions in civil and criminal cases. The constitutionality of the Federal Magistrate Act of 1979 has been called into question as some see the statute as an issue of the separation of powers because it creates a class of judges that have virtually the same power as Article III judges without the independence protections that these judges enjoy. Magistrate judges do not enjoy lifetime tenure (they instead serve four-to-eight year terms) and Congress may reduce their salaries (currently set at a maximum of 92% of that of district judges) simply by amending the Act. While judicial independence is crucial to the constitutionality of Article III judges, magistrate judges are constitutional entities despite their lack of Article III independence. The oversight by Article III judges and the consent of the parties to have their case heard by a magistrate judge has led courts to ultimately uphold the constitutionality of magistrate judges. Twelve of the thirteen federal appellate courts have upheld the constitutionality of §636(c) of the Federal Magistrates Act of 1979 (the Tenth Circuit has not yet ruled on this issue).

Many question the ever expanding power given to magistrate judges. Currently, the Federal Magistrates Act contains a short list of tasks that the district court may not assign to magistrates including summary judgment motions and motions to dismiss. There is no guarantee, however, that Congress will not attempt to further expand on magistrates’ authority. For example, we have seen with each amendment of the statute, Congress has given more authority to magistrate judges to help relieve pressures on the federal judicial system.  Years down the line, as further amendments are passed, we are likely to still be discussing the constitutionality of the Federal Magistrates Act. For now, the statute remains constitutional.

Congress enacted the Federal Magistrate Act with the intent that the magistrate judges would relieve district judges from overburdensome workloads. Because they are created under Article I, they are not guaranteed the same protections afforded to Article III judges. However, these protections of impartiality and independence are not lost with magistrate judges. The magistrate judge is an adjunct to the district court which does not threaten the independence of the judiciary. The district court judges may review the magistrate judges’ decisions in criminal trials or potentially vacate references to the magistrate for civil trials before the magistrate has ruled on any matters. This oversight coupled with the consent of the parties waiving their right to an Article III adjudication does not violate the separation of powers or undermine the federal judiciary power when magistrate judges enter final judgments.

History and Background

Drawing on the English and colonial tradition, the United States saw its first glimpse of magistrate judges in 1793 when Congress authorized the recently formed federal circuit courts to appoint “discreet persons learned in the law” or “commissioners” to accept bail in federal criminal cases. Fast-forward 175 years to 1968 when Congress attempted to replace this commissioner system after major criticisms arose. These criticisms included the fee-based system to compensate judicial officers, the lack of a post-graduate law education requirement, the excessive number of commissioners (as well as their part time status), and the lack of support and legal guidance given to the commissioners.  Ultimately, Congress enacted the Federal Magistrates Act of 1968 with two primary goals: (1) to replace the outdated commissioner system with a corps of new, upgraded judicial officers and (2) to provide judicial relief to district judges in handling their caseloads.

The Act permits the Judicial Conference, rather than individual courts or Congress, to delegate the number, location and salary of each magistrate judge’s position. Full-time magistrate judges are given an 8-year term of office while part-time magistrates have a 4-year term with strong preference to full-time service. The Act of 1968 expanded the authority previously exercised by commissioners by allowing magistrate judges to rule over the disposition of all minor criminal offenses and allowed district courts to assign magistrate judges “additional duties” to assist district judges. The provision broadly authorized district courts to assign magistrate judges “such additional duties as are not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States.”

The Supreme Court first examined the Federal Magistrate Act of 1968 in Wingo v. Wedding, holding that a magistrate judge had authority only to propose that the district judge conduct an evidentiary hearing in a habeas corpus proceeding. The court reasoned that because Congress did not explicitly specify that magistrate judges could preside over habeas corpus proceedings, they expressed an intent not to permit magistrates to preside in such matters. The 1976 amendments to the Federal Magistrates Act were a direct response to Wingo. The amendments allowed magistrate judges to preside over hearings in certain case-dispositive matters including habeas corpus petitions (on a report and recommendation basis).

After the 1976 amendments, the Supreme Court further upheld the authority of magistrate judges in both Mathews v. Weber and United States v. Raddatz. In Mathews, the court held that district judges could refer all Social Security benefit cases to magistrate judges for preliminary review subject to the independent review and decision of the district judge. The court emphasized that this procedure was permissible as long as the district judge retained the authority to “make an informed, final determination” of the case. In Raddatz, the Supreme Court determined whether the de novo determination in the Federal Magistrate Act required the district court to rehear testimony presented to a magistrate judge in criminal motion proceedings and whether the Federal Magistrate Act violated Article III of the Constitution. The Court concluded that Congress intended to leave discretion to the district judges on whether to accept or rehear evidence presented first to the magistrate judges. Accordingly, de novo determination did not require district judge to hold a new hearing. The Court further concluded that Article III was not violated because “the ultimate decision is made by the district court.”

In 1979, the Federal Magistrates Act was further amended to authorize magistrate judges to try and dispose of civil cases with the consent of the litigants. The district court must designate the magistrate judge to preside in such trials. Strict procedures were also put in place to prevent district judges or magistrate judges from coercing parties to give consent. In response to concerns regarding the “unevenness” in the quality of magistrate judges, the statute was further amended to require that magistrate judges be appointed and reappointed under regulations that include public notice of all vacancies and selection from a list proposed by a merit selection panel of residents of the district. The Act also increased the role, responsibilities, and status of the magistrates. It gave magistrates “authority to conduct trials in civil cases, with or without a jury, upon the consent of the parties; expanded the jurisdiction of magistrate judges to handle all federal misdemeanors rather than just petty offenses; granted authority to preside over jury trial in misdemeanor cases; provided a merit selection system for appointment of federal magistrates; and authorized funding for law clerks to assist magistrates.” This expanded power given to the magistrates has allowed the district courts to better manage their ever expanding workload and the heavy demands of federal court dockets.

Article III and Judicial Independence

The Federal Magistrate Act of 1979 empowered magistrate judges to “conduct any or all proceedings in a jury or nonjury civil matter and order the entry of judgment in the case.” This expansion of power gives federal magistrate judges nearly the same authority as federal district court judges in civil trials. However, magistrate judges are not provided the same Article III independence that is guaranteed to federal district court judges.  

Article III of the United States Constitution defines the federal judiciary and vests the judicial power “in one supreme Court and in such inferior Courts as the Congress shall from time to time ordain and establish.” Although the framers allowed Congress to freely define the role (and even existence) of the inferior federal courts, the language in Article III restricts the ability of Congress to define the institutional character of those courts. Article III, section 1 provides that, “[t]he Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.” This provision ensures that judges in both the Supreme Court and the inferior federal courts do not have to worry that he or she could be removed or have his or her salary lowered just because the President or Congress disagrees with the judge’s rulings. The guarantee of lifetime tenure and an undiminishable salary protects judicial independence and impartiality. While guarantees of tenure and salary are not necessarily a prerequisite for exercising judicial review, guarantees of judicial independence help to better protect the judges and prevent influence from Congress.

The provisions of lifetime tenure and a guaranteed salary help to reduce the politics of the judicial branch and prevent the other branches of government from dominating the judiciary.  Alexander Hamilton explained, “The standard of good behavior for the continuance in office of the judicial magistracy, is certainly one of the most valuable of the modern improvements in the practice of government.” Hamilton viewed these Article III protections as the best method a government could devise “to secure a steady, upright, and impartial administration of the laws.” Salary and tenure provisions ensure that judges interpret the law in accordance with their own beliefs of what is just, rather than being influenced by the opposition or ridicule of other branches. That gives them the ability to fully exercise judicial review by reviewing political actions within the framework of the Constitution. An independent judiciary is important to the separation of powers created by the Constitution.  If Congress or the President controlled the tenure and salary of federal judges, the judiciary would not play a key role in the system of checks and balances. There would be a great danger that the judges would present the views of legislative or executive branch simply to protect their careers. The tenure and salary provisions insulate the judiciary from political pressures and external affairs. These provisions protect the rights of the public by ensuring that a neutral, detached judge, free from domination by other branches protects the rights of the people. Since Article III requires these protections for judges, constitutional questions arise when Congress delegates judicial power to non-Article III judges like federal magistrates.

The most convincing argument against the use of magistrate judges in civil jury and nonjury trials is the philosophy that Article III is concerned with the separation of powers and judicial independence. Supporters of this theory believe delegation of Article III judiciary functions to Article I judges is contrary to the best interest of the parties and consent is irrelevant. Article III provides for an independent judiciary through tenure, salary guarantees, appointment and removal. Supporters of this theory argue that parties do not have the ability to waive the requirements of Article III. In addition to this, many argue that consent cannot confer jurisdiction upon a court.    

In Pacemaker Diagnostic Clinic of America v. Instromedix, Inc., the Ninth Circuit, en banc, considered the constitutionality of the magistrate judges’ civil authority under Article III. The court reasoned that Article III separation of powers actually contains two types of protections: (1) the right of the individual affected by government action and (2) the structural interest of each branch of government remaining independent from the other. The court concluded that the individual component of the separation of powers can be waived similar to the way criminal defendants can waive fundamental rights under the Constitution. Parties have a right to adjudication by an Article III judge, but this right is waivable by civil litigants. The court emphasized that adjudication by an Article III judge was only waivable if the litigant’s consent was truly voluntary. The court also concluded that the parties in this case were not trying to improperly extend federal jurisdiction. Instead of expanding Article III jurisdiction, the consent of the parties was simply to transfer the issue to another federal forum.

In addressing the structural component of the separation of powers, the court stated that “[t]he component of the separation of powers rule that protects the integrity of the constitutional structure, as distinct from the component that protects the rights of litigants, cannot be waived by the parties.” The court set forth a standard to evaluate whether statutes concerning the judiciary prevent or substantially impair the judiciary from performing its role under the Constitution. The court looked at whether the judiciary retained its essential powers and independence. The court held that, because Article III judges retained sufficient control over the magistrate, there was no violation of the separation of powers.

The district courts have direct control over the magistrates – they not only appoint the magistrates, but they may also remove them for reasons other than impeachable behavior for incompetency, misconduct, neglect of duty, or physical or mental disability. District courts also have plenary authority over the magistrates’ delegated responsibilities. District courts determine the specific cases to be handled by magistrate judges and retain the powers of referral, withdrawal of referral, and sua sponte review in certain circumstances. Parties also have the right to appeal cases heard by a magistrate judge to an Article III judge.  The provisions of Article III that ensure judicial independence also protect the appointment process from potential outside influence. If guaranteed tenure and salary can protect federal judges from outside influence when deciding cases, the same guarantees can also ensure the reliability of the selection and appointment of federal magistrates. The Article III judges, as a whole, serve their own personal interests by appointing competent individuals as magistrates because the Article III judge will be relying heavily on the ability and integrity of the magistrate. In addition to this, magistrate judges are held to the same code of conduct as Article III judges and most disqualify themselves from any proceeding in which the magistrate has a personal bias or prejudice concerning a party.

Judicial independence is necessary in order for judges to adjudicate impartially and free from external pressure, and is therefore crucial to a fair judicial system – this fact is not disputed. Despite the lack of judicial independence, however, the consent jurisdiction of magistrate judges is constitutional. First, magistrate judges are not Article III courts – they are Article I judges. Second, as Article I judges, magistrate judges are subject to the ultimate review of their corresponding Article III judges, and therefore encompass all of the fundamental principles of judicial independence that the Article III judges do.

Article I Authority

Courts have disposed of concerns about the constitutionality of magistrate judges by analyzing the issue through the lens that magistrate judges are adjuncts to the district court. Unlike federal district and appellate judges, whose authority stems from Article III of the United States Constitution, magistrate judges are a creation of Congress under Article I. Article I, § 8 of the Constitution enumerates the powers that are vested in the federal legislative branch. Among these is Congress’s power to constitute tribunals inferior to the Supreme Court. This grants Congress the power to create non-Article III tribunals, such as those of magistrate judges, to aid the Article III courts in attaining their substantive regulatory aim. Magistrate judges were established in 1968 when Congress authorized their appointment. Since their creation, magistrate judges have been allocated broader jurisdiction over time, and have become Congress’s preferred mechanism for addressing certain issues and challenges that arise. Magistrate judges are now able to preside over both civil and misdemeanor criminal trials.

The scope of the magistrate judicial responsibility is defined and limited by Congress. Although the office of magistrate judge originates from an Article I grant of power, the magistrate judge serves an adjunct officer with authority arising from Article III of the Constitution. The adjunct officer acts within the jurisdiction of the Article III court that delegates tasks to him or her. The Third Circuit in Wharton-Thomas v. United States concluded that the granting civil trial authority to magistrate judges did not undermine the separation of powers because magistrate judges, as adjuncts, are carefully controlled and supervised by the district court. District courts have significant influence over the administration, composition, and operations of the magistrate system.  District courts control the appointment of magistrate judges and can exercise appellate review over their criminal trial decisions or vacate the reference of a civil matter to a magistrate judge. Article I tribunals, such as magistrate judges, are considered constitutional because they are merely adjunct tribunals to the Article III courts and are ultimately subject to the power and review of those courts. As adjunct tribunals that are only delegated certain judicial powers, the Article I tribunals may be considered supplemental and subordinate to their respective district courts, rather than entirely independent. They are considered consistent with the principles of Article III so long as the essential attributes of judicial power remain in the Article III district court. While there is a strong federal interest in preserving Article III principles, there is an equally compelling need to ensure access to those federal forums by reducing the district court’s workload to ensure that people have access to inexpensive and speedy trials. Article I adjunct tribunals are an efficient means of preserving such interests.

While the oversight of Article III judges is essential to the integrity of the Article I tribunal system, there can be no doubt that magistrate judges are constitutional entities based on the congressional power to create them enumerated in Article I § 8 of the Constitution. By creating adjunct tribunals, Congress clearly believed they were necessary to facilitate the district courts, and Article I gives Congress the power to establish such tribunals as it deems necessary


The intent of the 1979 amendments to the Federal Magistrate Act was to improve access to the courts and relieve Picture2
the overloaded dockets of district court judges.  The delegation of civil jury and
nonjury trials to magistrate judges, upon the consent of the parties, was intended to provide for more cost effective and timely adjudication, especially for the economically disadvantaged.  Consent to magistrate adjudication by parties is highly encouraged by the court system.  It is foreseeable that many litigants would choose speedier, less costly courts, regardless of the constitutional implications.  Opponents of the Federal Magistrates Act argue that it is creating a two-tier judiciary where the economically disadvantaged are provided with less experienced judges whose independence could be called into question, while providing corporations and the economically advantaged access to high quality Article III judicial officers who are offered the protection that comes with judicial independence. However, the court in
Pacemaker addressed this by emphasizing that the consent of the parties must be voluntary. The court stated, “If it were shown that the choice is between trial to a magistrate or the endurance of delay or other measurable hardships not clearly justified by the needs of judicial administration, we would be required to consider whether the right to an Article III forum had been voluntarily relinquished.”

Voluntary consent of the parties is a requirement for a federal magistrate judge to conduct proceedings in jury or nonjury civil trial, as is indicated in 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). Depending on which side of the constitutionality debate you land, consent is either the gating factor or is completely irrelevant.  The question is, does Article III confer an individual right to an Article III judge or is it structural in nature, meant to control the separation of powers?  Even if consent is found to tame constitutional concerns, fears remain with respect to the potential for implicit coercion or forced consent.

Conducting and entering judgments on civil jury and nonjury trials are clear Article III responsibilities, ones that should not be delegated to Article I judges. However, the Supreme Court found in Peretz, a criminal case involving magistrate judge oversight of felony voir dire, that consent removed many of the constitutional concerns addressed in previous cases. The parties are transferring their dispute to a different forum, one supervised and managed by Article III judges.  Parties consenting to the use of a magistrate judge can be construed as transferring the case to a different judicial officer, not a different entity. All circuit courts that have considered the specific issue of magistrate authority over civil trials have concluded the system to be constitutional.

Presuming that the defendant has a right to an Article III judge, the court in Peretz v. United States reasoned that this right may either be invoked or waived. Therefore, the Constitution, the court held, affords no assistance to those who waive their rights or do not ask for an Article III judge to preside over a hearing. The courts have also expanded on the consent requirement by allowing consent to be implied from a party’s conduct during litigation. In Roell v. Withrow, the court held that the plaintiff’s general appearances before the Magistrate Judge, after they were told of their right to be tried by a district judge, constituted voluntary consent to disposition by the magistrate Judge.


Judicial independence is necessary for Article III judges to perform their responsibilities within the bounds of the Constitution. This is inherent to our country’s system of checks and balances. Fortunately, these fundamental principles are not compromised by the Article I tribunal courts, such as magistrate judges, because their decisions are subject to be either vacated or reviewed by their respective district court judges and the magistrate judges exercise jurisdiction based on the consent of the parties. Therefore, the judicial independence that is so crucial to our judicial system is still encompassed by the consent jurisdiction of the magistrate judges. Because of their ultimate review by Article III judges in criminal trials and the power of the district court judges to vacate references to magistrates in civil matters, magistrate judges are still held to the fundamental principles found in Article III and are thus considered constitutional based on their consent jurisdiction.

Magistrate Judges: Efficient or Just Plain Unconstitutional?