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An Introduction to the Types of Judges in the Federal System

Virginia Davis Fisher


  • This article provides a brief overview of the most common decision-makers in the US federal system, including US District Judges, Magistrate Judges, Other Article I Judges, and Administrative Law Judges. It explains their roles, appointment process, and jurisdiction. 
  • Understanding these differences can help determine the most appropriate judge for a case.
An Introduction to the Types of Judges in the Federal System
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One of the most important issues in every dispute is the age-old question: who decides? Before you develop your winning case strategy, the first thing to determine is who will be presiding over your case. The following is a short introduction to the most common decision-makers in the federal system.

US District Judges

US district judges are often called “Article III judges.” Their authority comes from Article III of the US Constitution. They are appointed by the president “by and with the advice and consent of the Senate,” US Const. art. II, § 2, to serve in one of the 94 federal district courts across the United States. They “hold their office during good behavior,” which means they have life tenure. US Const. art. III, § 1. They may be removed from office only through impeachment by the House of Representatives and conviction by the Senate.

District judges have jurisdiction at the trial level over federal criminal and civil cases arising in the district in which they sit. Their responsibilities include:

  • overseeing jury selection and jury instructions during jury trials;
  • resolving factual and legal disputes in bench trials (trials without juries);
  • ruling on requests to admit or exclude evidence;
  • taking pleas in criminal cases;
  • resolving issues regarding jury verdicts and the entry of judgment; and
  • sentencing defendants in criminal cases that result in conviction.

Magistrate Judges

Magistrate judges are considered Article I judges because their power derives from acts of Congress rather than the Constitution.

Magistrate judges are selected by a majority vote of the district judges in a given district to serve as judicial officers of the district court. To become a magistrate judge, a candidate must meet several requirements and be vetted by a merit selection panel that includes lawyers and non-lawyers from the community. Once selected, magistrate judges are appointed for a renewable term of eight years, though some part-time magistrate judges serve four-year terms.

The duties of a magistrate judge depend on the district in which they sit. They often conduct mediations, resolve discovery disputes, decide a wide variety of pretrial motions, determine whether criminal defendants will be detained or released on a bond, and make recommendations regarding whether a party should win a case on summary judgment or whether a case should be dismissed. Additionally, if both sides in a civil case consent, magistrate judges may hear the entire dispute, rule on all motions, and preside at trial.

Other Article I Judges

Other Article I judges play important roles in our legal system and include judges for the US Bankruptcy Court, US Court of Federal Claims, and US Tax Court. These judges are different from magistrate judges.

For example, US Bankruptcy Court judges preside over the hundreds of thousands of bankruptcy cases filed by individuals and businesses each year, resolving issues like whether a debtor is eligible to seek relief in bankruptcy court and whether certain debts should be discharged.

Administrative Law Judges

Administrative law judges (ALJs) preside over disputes within federal administrative agencies, including the Coast Guard, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Department of Labor. ALJs are appointed by the heads of the executive agencies and are considered part of the executive branch. See 5 U.S.C. § 3105.

ALJs generally have the same scope of authority as traditional judges in the courtroom. Among other things, ALJs have the authority to administer oaths, issue subpoenas, rule on evidentiary objections, and issue legal and factual determinations. 5 U.S.C. § 556(c).

ALJs also enjoy statutory removal protections. Once appointed, an ALJ may be removed only for good cause “established and determined by the Merit Systems Protection Board,” an independent agency charged with protecting federal employees from abuse by agency management. 5 U.S.C. § 7521.

The judges discussed above all serve related but different roles in the federal system. Understanding those differences will help set you up for success no matter who decides your client’s case.