May 01, 2017

Life as a U.S. Magistrate Judge

By Judge Noelle C. Collins

I was in my third year of law school in the spring of 2001, enjoying a trial-practice course, when I was introduced to the unfamiliar and important role of U.S. magistrate judges in the federal judiciary. The two local luminaries who taught the class were a U.S. district judge and his former law clerk, both of whom gave us rich insight about the best practices in federal court. They clearly loved their work.

Between delighting us with courtroom antics and legal war stories, the energetic pair explained that magistrate judges are authorized by statute1 and local rules to dispose of a full range of civil matters and to handle a variety of criminal cases. Later, I learned that life-tenured district judges appoint magistrate judges through a merit-selection process to eight-year fixed, renewable terms. District judges average more than 500 cases on their dockets nationally, according to the Chief Justice’s 2016 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary,2 and the position of magistrate judge is designed to be flexible to bear some of that weight. District judges can delegate and decide the responsibilities of magistrate judges within their jurisdiction, based on the needs of that court in dealing with that heavy caseload. In addition to many other duties, some courts have decided to use magistrate judges as mediators to settle civil claims; in other courts, they are traditional trial judges. Regardless of geography, nearly all magistrate judges handle preliminary criminal matters. And the express purpose and goal of these judicial partnerships are to aid in the public’s access to our 94 federal district courts.

I recall in law school that my professors noted that seasoned attorneys take the time to know such details about the court and to find opportunities to connect with the person who wears the black robe and hears the case. The message was: Know your audience. Challenge accepted, I thought.

The advice about judges was sensible, of course. To a group of fledgling advocates, the idea of connecting with a judge outside the classroom seemed as lofty as climbing Mount Everest. Undaunted, I filed that information away with other practice tips and focused on the litigator’s ultimate dream—to get into court early and often. I met that goal after a stint in private practice, later appearing regularly before the six magistrate judges3 in the Eastern Division of the Eastern District of Missouri and 10 district and senior judges during nearly a decade as a federal prosecutor in St. Louis. Each one was thoughtful, learned, and exacting in equal measure with prosecutors and defense counsel alike. I could not have imagined as a law student that my years of practice would eventually result in the personal privilege in December 2013 of joining the ranks of the more than 531 full-time magistrate judges who are serving the public as part of the third branch of government. 4

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