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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

The Magistrate Judge System

The origin story of the modern magistrate judge can be found in the expansion of the 175-year-old U.S. commissioner program. Congress authorized U.S. commissioners to accept bail in federal criminal cases, in the tradition of the English and colonial systems, while serving terms of four years. The system worked for a time, but the country outgrew it as the number and complexity of cases increased.

The current duties of a magistrate judge stretch far beyond this original concept. Nearly 50 years ago, Congress passed the Federal Magistrates Act of 19685 that fashioned the modern version of the position. The Federal Magistrates Act authorized the Judicial Conference, rather than individual courts or Congress, to set uniform hiring standards for each district. The Act does not mandate the specific duties of a magistrate judge. Instead, these decisions were left to district judges, who are most familiar with the unique dynamics of their courts, cases, and communities. More than 25 years ago, the official title was changed from “magistrate” to “magistrate judge” by Congress in the Judicial Improvements Act of 19906 to reflect the magistrate judge’s expanded statutory powers as a judicial officer granted by that legislation. Since that time, Congress has passed the Federal Courts Improvement Act of 19967 to eliminate the need for a magistrate judge to obtain consent to jurisdiction in certain classes of misdemeanors and petty offenses. The 1996 Act also provided that the chief justice select a magistrate judge to be a member of the Judicial Center Board. Thereafter, the Federal Courts Improvement Act of 20008 further expanded magistrate judge authority over certain misdemeanor cases involving juveniles, including sentencing, and also granted summary contempt powers over all proceedings before a magistrate judge. In 2015, magistrate judges resolved 1,090,734 matters.9

Because the responsibilities are vast and the work is serious, the journey to the magistrate judge’s bench is a comprehensive, multilayered process determined by federal statute. Candidates complete a lengthy application, and the district judges of that court empanel a merit-selection panel that is composed of both lawyers and nonlawyers. The panel is tasked with identifying the top applicants and using fair employment practices to ensure that the full range of talented women and men, including those belonging to minority and other underrepresented groups, are given proper consideration for joining the ranks of magistrate judges.10 The Eastern District of Missouri is unusual in its diversity, with more women than men, and three full-time African American female magistrate judges, including myself.11

The merit-selection panel reviews the candidates in the applicant pool and may choose to hold interviews. The panel must put forward a list of names for the district judges’ consideration. A final round of interviews is held and a vote is taken by the members of the court to select the next magistrate judge. Once a background check is completed by the Federal Bureau of Investigations, the new magistrate judge can be sworn in for duty.

One-Case, One-Judge Approach

Since my appointment on December 1, 2013, it seems that no two days or cases are alike. Each day involves ruling on civil and criminal motions and making case management determinations. Each week offers a new chance for public outreach at the Thomas F. Eagleton Courthouse—including speaking to law students, Scout troops, and potential jurors when they arrive for orientation—and contributing to the smooth flow of court governance by working on standing committees.

Most days of the week, I am on the bench for criminal matters or talking with lawyers in chambers or by teleconference, especially during my regular criminal duty rotations. My full-time chambers’ staff of two, with support from my team of deputy clerks, is actively involved in ensuring that each case gets the attention it requires. My civil case management includes a daily briefing with my career law clerk about my large docket of Social Security disability appeals and habeas corpus petitions from state prisoners. We discuss the new cases filed, looking to root out conflicts of interest and flag motions to dismiss or remand. Anything that requires a quick turn-around has daily priority.

Social Security and habeas corpus appeals make up two-thirds of my civil docket. The remainder of the caseload is quite diverse. I have handled copyright infringement matters, class action claims, wage actions, and contract disputes, to name a few, with full consent of the parties. All of this is possible because my magistrate judge colleagues12 and I are the beneficiaries of decisions made by the insightful district judges of this court long before my tenure on the bench.

On November 30, 1993, former Chief District Judge Edward Filippine signed an order in this district adopting a plan to change the assignment of civil cases, among other measures. The plan was implemented as part of the Civil Justice Reform Act of 1990,13 which led to the inclusion of magistrate judges in the random assignment of civil cases among district judges. The reassignment plan was implemented to achieve three primary goals: (1) to reduce the caseloads of district judges so that they could handle their own pretrial matters, (2) to utilize magistrate judges fully as judicial officers for civil case management and disposition to eliminate inherent delay in the referral system, and (3) to promote greater predictability and efficiency by having a single judge handle all aspects of a case. The court’s confidence in the system and the vision to see it through was born from congressional action and a nationwide desire among federal judges to reduce expenses and delay in federal court. The “one-case, one-judge” approach has continued under the leadership of Chief Judge Rodney W. Sippel. The district court voted last year to end referral of Social Security appeals and habeas corpus cases to magistrate judges by a report and recommendation.14

I consider it a great honor and responsibility to serve in a jurisdiction where magistrate judges are afforded the opportunity to handle civil cases independently from start to finish once the parties have consented. Today, parties regularly consent to magistrate judges at the start of the case by local rule and the local bar associations of each designated courthouse are comfortable with the well-established structure of our court.15 The Eastern District of Missouri enjoys one of the highest consent rates nationally for magistrate judge jurisdiction, with each judge shepherding a steady flow of cases. Attorneys tell me, for example, that they like having their Rule 16 conferences and hearings on pretrial matters before their trial judge. If possible, I hold my conferences in chambers, rather than the courtroom, to foster a productive, more robust, and less formal discussion with the lawyers about their cases. I take this time to encourage settlement discussions early in the case and avoid the surprises that most laypeople think are commonplace in trial work. When discovery disputes do arise, I encourage the lawyers to meet and confer and make a real effort toward resolving the issue. If that does not work, I will help the attorneys resolve the dispute informally or else take up a motion to compel in my courtroom. My goal is always to move the parties toward a meeting of the minds and the best resolution they can craft. My colleagues from across the nation tell me that they feel the same way regardless of whether they serve as trial judges on civil matters.

Court Governance and Public Outreach

The district judges here also encourage magistrate judges to participate in court governance and public outreach. Magistrate judges are invited and expected to attend the monthly judges meeting and vote on agenda items. I serve on the Local Rules and Criminal Justice Act (CJA) planning committees, which are led by district judges and include other magistrate judges. In the Local Rules committee, we painstakingly incorporate suggestions and feedback from both the bar and other judges to craft proposed changes to improve our local rules. These proposals are then put to a vote in this court and approved by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The CJA planning committee oversees the criteria and applications for membership in the lead and training panels for defense lawyers. We also establish criteria for the CJA panel and recommend policy for review and vote by the entire court. This includes supporting the Federal Defender’s Office in its representation of indigent defendants as mandated by the Sixth Amendment, as well as introducing national policy to our judges on tricky or topical issues, like balancing the needs of victims, witnesses, and defendants at sentencing hearings while at the same time maintaining transparency at public proceedings.

Additionally, each judge rotates a miscellaneous duty month that includes explaining the process and significance of jury service to summoned venire panel members, as well as presiding over the pomp and circumstance of naturalization ceremonies for new U.S. citizens. Juror orientation presents a welcome opportunity to thank citizens for their service in advance. Naturalization ceremonies are always thrilling because they are rare occasions where everyone assembled is happy to be in court. We hold these ceremonies at various places in the St. Louis area, my two favorites being the 28th floor en banc courtroom of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals atop our shared Thomas F. Eagleton Courthouse and down the street every Fourth of July in the intimate rotunda of the Old Courthouse.16 It is quite a sight to look out at a courtroom full of smiling new citizens dressed in their finery and holding small American flags. I usually request that our local a cappella group, the Courthouse Singers, be included in the program, during which they lead the crowd in renditions of the Star-Spangled Banner and America the Beautiful. I also choose speakers who I know will inspire our new citizens to fully engage in our democracy. Every ceremony is unique, but each is the perfect homecoming event.

But all this is only one-half of my duties.

Criminal Duties

Unlike my civil case docket, I am regularly assigned as a pretrial judge and randomly paired with any one of our district judges on all felony cases. Felony trials are the province of district judges. For my part, I see these defendants for the first time typically at their arraignments, where I set a schedule for pretrial motions. Later, I hold evidentiary hearings on any suppression motions that are filed. Frequently, defendants waive their constitutional rights to challenge the government’s evidence at trial. If not, the government presents its witnesses; defendants sometimes testify as well, and I make detailed written findings of fact and conclusions of law in the form of a report and recommendation to the district judge assigned to the case for trial. I also carry a docket of the misdemeanor cases, where I am the trial judge who may also take a defendant’s guilty plea and fashion a reasonable sentence. As every sentencing judge knows, this responsibility can be difficult and profound.

Additionally, on Mondays I serve as one of three presiding judges for our Janis C. Good Mental Health criminal reentry court. Our weekly staff meeting occurs over the lunch hour with a team of probation officers, social workers, a prosecutor, and assistant federal defenders to discuss the mental health of our participating defendants and their progress while on federal supervised release. The lawyers, probation officers, and court staff volunteer their time. During court, each of the judges takes a turn presiding, and we talk with the defendants about life skills, medication compliance, and practical solutions to their real-world problems.

For criminal pretrial matters assigned to me, the constitutional and statutory imperatives for a speedy trial mean that criminal cases must move at a faster pace. My judicial assistant and I discuss my criminal cases all day, every day, as the need arises. On a daily basis, I receive and respond to a steady stream of email correspondence from U.S. Pretrial Services Officers and U.S. Probation Officers who keep me abreast of the activities of criminal defendants who I have released on bond or those whom I have sentenced to terms of probation on misdemeanor cases. Orders setting conditions of release that I have issued need frequent modification as housing arrangements change, substance abuse is treated, or travel is requested by a defendant.

The other recurring criminal responsibility I share with my magistrate judge colleagues is serving as the criminal duty-week judge, a rotating obligation that occurs about every six weeks. This seven-day period is always intense and presents an unpredictable wave of matters. Over the course of a duty week, I usually review dozens of search and seizure warrant applications presented by different federal prosecutors investigating a multitude of people and federal crimes. Criminal complaints are presented, motions for tax records filed, and a range of other requests from the United States requiring judicial review and approval are delivered to my chambers door every few hours. I expect both the commonplace and complicated—whether ruling on an extradition request from a foreign country for a person in the United States to answer for an alleged crime overseas, or ordering a pen register, or trap and trace application issues.

Dozens of defendants need to be seen each week for an initial appearance on an information, indictment, or supervised release revocation petition. During duty weeks, I keep my court-issued iPhone with me at all times, except while on the bench, in order to immediately receive electronic updates and filing notifications, as well as to allow me to respond to the legion of emails in my inbox.

During these hectic days, I must render bond and detention decisions, as well as hold preliminary hearings on supervised release matters. CJA lawyers must be appointed and conflicts ruled out. There are numerous occasions where outside factors interfere with a defendant’s ability to immediately understand his or her rights and appreciate the seriousness of what is happening in the courtroom. These factors may be substance abuse issues, mental illness, intellectual deficits, language barriers, physical ailments, and/or disagreements between a defendant and defense counsel, all of which require additional attention (and sometimes intervention) to ensure that a defendant is competent to proceed to trial. Such matters often lead to the lawyers seeking mental competency evaluations by licensed medical professionals and inpatient drug treatment, which I coordinate with our excellent U.S. Pretrial Services Office.

It is not uncommon during duty weeks for all the chambers’ telephone lines to ring in concert with the chambers’ doorbell, while lawyers, case agents, and Pretrial Officers are sandwiched together in my reception area and I am on the bench seeing other defendants. It is all in a day’s work—although sometimes that includes a night’s work as well, depending on how late a federal prosecutor’s or investigator’s call reaches me.

The working lives of all magistrate judges are largely the same. There is little mystery behind the formality: We protect and promote our constitutional system and apply the law to resolve disputes in the same manner as all judges. The weight of the responsibility is humbling, but this is the most rewarding work of my life.

The author acknowledges the valuable research assistance of her temporary law clerk, Bradley Schneider.


1. 28 U.S.C. § 636.

2. Chief U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Roberts made this comment about the outstanding and sometimes unsung work of district judges and highlighted their work in his 2016 report. Chief Justice John Roberts, 2016 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary (Dec. 31, 2016), available at

3. The Southeastern Division of the Eastern District of Missouri has one permanent full-time magistrate judge sitting in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, making a total of seven in the District.

4. Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts statistics for the recording year 2014.

5. 28 U.S.C. §§ 631–639 (codified provisions only).

6. Judicial Improvements Act of 1990, Pub. L. No. 101-650, 104 Stat. 5089.

7. Federal Courts Improvement Act of 1996, Pub. L. No. 104-317, 110 Stat. 3847.

8. Federal Courts Improvement Act of 2000, Pub. L. No. 106-518, 114 Stat. 2410.

9. U.S. Magistrate Judges—Judicial Business 2015, U.S. Courts, (Feb. 3, 2017).

10. H.R. Rep. No. 95-1364, 95th Cong. 2d. Sess. 17–18. See also H.R. Rep. No. 96-287, 96th Cong., 1st Sess. 14–16 (1979), and 28 U.S.C. § 631.

11. For reference, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts reported that as of 2013, 69 percent of full-time, part-time, and recalled magistrate judges were male. As of that report, 85 percent of all magistrate judges were identified as Caucasian, with African American (7 percent), Hispanic (4 percent), Asian American (2 percent), and Native American/Pacific Islander (<1 percent) judges making up the remainder.

12. My current colleagues include two former Missouri Court of Appeals judges (one of whom is Chief Magistrate Judge Nannette A. Baker, Federal Trial Judges Conference Chair, American Bar Association), a law firm partner with more than 20 years in private practice before appointment, and three former AUSAs, including Magistrate Judge David D. Noce, who recently celebrated his 40th anniversary on the bench, making him the longest-serving magistrate judge in the nation.

13. 28 U.S.C. §§ 471–482.

14. This policy went into effect on October 1, 2016.

15. The court in the Northern Division sits in Hannibal, Missouri.

16. The Old Courthouse was the original federal courthouse in St. Louis. It was the site where the first of the two landmark Dred Scott cases (with his wife Harriet) was decided in 1847. In the 1870s, Virginia Minor filed a lawsuit asserting a woman’s right to vote in the same courthouse. Slaves were auctioned on the steps of that courthouse in estate settlements. Today, the Old Courthouse is maintained, along with the Gateway Arch, as part of the National Park Service’s Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. The Eastern District of Missouri District Court uses this venue every Fourth of July to host a naturalization ceremony.