When law students consider post-graduate federal judicial clerkships, they usually think about two types of judges: district and circuit. Many students fail to consider magistrate judges, primarily because they do not know what magistrate judges do. Secondarily, students sometimes perceive magistrate judge clerkships as less prestigious, less rewarding than clerkships for other types of judges, or limiting their post-clerkship career options.
What Are Magistrate Judges?
There are more than 600 magistrate judges serving in the United States District Courts. Magistrate judges are not Article III judges, which under the U.S. Constitution, are nominated by the President, confirmed by the Senate, and given life tenure. Rather, magistrate judges are appointed to eightyear renewable terms by a majority vote of all active district judges in the court after a public notice and selection process. It is not uncommon for magistrate judges to be nominated to become district court judges after serving as a magistrate judge.
Magistrate judges have jurisdiction over matters assigned by statute as well as those delegated by district judges. What this means in practice is that the work of a magistrate judge varies, sometimes considerably, by district or even within a district. Generally, magistrate judges may preside over all matters before the district court other than the final disposition of cases. This includes mediations and settlement conferences, resolving discovery disputes, preliminary hearings in felony criminal matters, and issuing Reports and Recommendations (R&Rs) on civil pretrial and dispositive motions. If all parties consent, magistrate judges may hear the entire dispute in civil cases, including ruling on all motions and presiding over the trial. Although magistrate judges cannot preside at felony criminal trials, they can dispose of petty offense and misdemeanor cases and conduct preliminary and post-conviction proceedings in felony cases.
Magistrate judge clerks often have considerable autonomy.
The Magistrate Judge Clerkship Experience
Magistrate judges are authorized to hire two legal staff members, which may be any combination of law clerks (term or career) and judicial assistants. District judges, by contrast, may hire three legal staff members and circuit judges can hire four. The work of a magistrate judge clerk has many similarities with the role of a district judge clerk. Clerks engage in a lot of research and writing and are often in the courtroom.
In many districts, magistrate judge clerks largely handle a civil docket, consisting of drafting Report and Recommendations (R&Rs) or opinions in a variety of matters, such as employment discrimination claims, Section 1983 civil rights suits, Social Security disability appeals, habeas petitions, and tort and contract disputes. One former magistrate judge clerk in Chicago worked entirely on drafting opinions deciding dispositive and in limine motions in civil matters, as well as helping the judge prepare for trials. This type of experience provides an excellent overview of civil litigation from beginning to end.
In other districts, magistrate judge clerks may have more exposure to criminal matters. One former clerk we spoke with said that he found himself in the courtroom interacting with the assistant U.S. attorneys a lot more than his district judge counterparts. In his district, magistrate judges handle all initial appearances, preliminary hearings and probable cause determinations, identity hearings, revocation hearings, and detention hearings.
Additionally, magistrate judges will handle applications for wire taps and showings for search warrants and pen registers. Some magistrate judge clerks also draft R&Rs on motions in criminal cases, such as motions to suppress evidence. This gives clerks an inside look at the criminal process that cannot be gained elsewhere.
Like in many chambers, magistrate judge clerks often have considerable autonomy. As one magistrate judge put it, “I let my law clerks do the initial research and write the initial draft, and then tell me how I should decide.” While the judge sometimes disagrees and rewrites it, in many instances the clerk’s draft is largely ready to be signed. “It really allows the law clerk to grow intellectually, with the law clerk choosing the direction in which to advise the judge.”
The Application Process
Applying for clerkships with magistrate judges is like applying for other federal clerkships. Most magistrate judges post open positions on OSCAR (the federal law clerk hiring website) and require the same materials — namely, a resume, cover letter, writing sample, transcript, and recommendation letters. Many magistrate judges hire later than other federal judges, although some will hire a year or more in advance. While some magistrate judges hire law clerks directly out of law school, others — particularly in high-volume, fast-paced districts — prefer clerks with post-graduate litigation experience.
Post-Clerkship Career Options
A magistrate judge clerkship can be astepping-stone position to another clerkship and is looked upon favorably by other federal judges. But it can also open doors to a wide range of legal practice positions. Students whom we have helped place into magistrate judge clerkships have gone on to be federal district and circuit judge clerks, associates at law firms of all sizes, federal agency attorneys, federal and state prosecutors and defenders, and legal aid and non-profit attorneys. As one former clerk recounted, “My clerkship gave me an inside view of how litigation moves through the courts and how judges makes decisions, and it was a crash course in legal analysis and writing that made me competitive for the dream job I moved onto after clerking.”