June 01, 2018 From the Bench

See Something, Write Something

Hon. Stephen Wm. Smith | The author is a former magistrate judge on the U.S. District and Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Texas. He wrote this column shortly before he retired on July 31, 2018.

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In a few weeks, I will trade in my commission as U.S. magistrate judge for a voyage into the retirement sunset. Before hoisting sail with a parting glass, I offer these reflections to my worthy successors in these chambers.

You will soon learn, as I did, that federal magistrate judges (formerly known as “commissioners”) have always played an unsung role in our nation’s judicial system. Despite occupying what is sometimes termed the “lower level” of the judicial totem pole, magistrate judges are essential to the rule of law in our democracy. When it comes to the Fourth Amendment—especially electronic search, seizure, and surveillance warrants—nobody is more important than you are. You sit where the 18th-century rubber meets the 21st-century cloud—a suitably befuddled metaphor for the befuddling challenges you will face in an era when the reach of digital technology continually exceeds the grasp of law.

Criminals increasingly make good use of computers, cell phones, and other digital devices to accomplish their purposes. But so does everybody else, including my two-year-old granddaughter on her tablet screen. Who is it that, on a daily basis, maintains that fine balance between legitimate and illegitimate law enforcement intrusion into our digital lives? Magistrate judges, like you.

Given that vital responsibility, you will be disconcerted to learn how few of your fellow citizens have a clue about what you do—not just the general public but also friends, family, and even fellow lawyers. The reason why is no great mystery to anyone familiar with our docketing system. Unlike federal civil and criminal dockets to which public electronic access is the norm, the work of magistrate judges is largely hidden in sealed manila envelopes buried within courthouse vaults.

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