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Landmark Legislation: Federal Magistrates Act

Text of Document

82 Stat. 1107
October, 17, 1968

In 1968 Congress instituted a system of magistrates to replace United States commissioners, who in some form or another had served the federal judiciary since the 1790s. The act instructed the Judicial Conference to determine the number of magistrates necessary in each judicial district and authorized the district judges to appoint the approved number. Magistrates continued to carry out the commissioners' duties, such as issuing warrants, conducting hearings, and establishing bail. District judges could assign other duties related to service as special masters, pretrial and discovery proceedings, and applications for post-trial relief. Magistrates also were granted the authority to conduct trials of persons accused of minor offenses and to sentence those convicted, although defendants were granted the right to choose a trial with a district judge or to appeal the magistrate's ruling to the district court.

A statute of 1793 permitted the judges of the U.S. circuit courts to appoint "discreet persons learned in the law" to take bail in criminal cases, just as the Judiciary Act of 1789 had authorized local judicial officials to take bail and depositions in federal court proceedings. In 1817, in a statute further defining the responsibilities of these court-appointed officers to assist judges in the taking of depositions and bail in civil actions, Congress first used the term "commissioners." An act of 1842 authorized commissioners to arrest and imprison criminal offenders. Congress extended the duties of commissioners to include enforcement of specific acts as diverse as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1888. In recognition of the courts' growing reliance on some form of magistrates, Congress in 1896 formally established the position of United States commissioner, to be appointed by the judges of district rather than the circuit courts. The act included the first uniform fee schedule for commissioners and regularized the appointment process.

In the mid-twentieth century the operation of the U.S. commissioner system continued to vary greatly from one district to another and the fee system could not adequately compensate the work of the most active commissioners. Most commissioners were part-time judicial officers, and no law required them to be attorneys. After the Judicial Conference and several members of Congress recommended broad reform, a Senate Judiciary subcommittee in 1965 opened hearings that led to several innovations in the federal judiciary, including the Federal Magistrates Act of 1968. The act instituted a salary schedule to replace the fee system and required all magistrates to be members of the bar of the high court in their respective states. Congress created the positions of full-time magistrates who would serve a term of eight years and part-time magistrates who would serve four years.

Subsequent legislation expanded the magistrates' trial authority, especially in civil cases. The Judicial Improvements Act of 1990 (104 Stat. 5089) changed the title of the office to Magistrate Judge.

Further reading:
McCabe, Peter G. "The Federal Magistrate Act of 1979." Harvard Journal on Legislation 16 (1979): 343-401.

Spaniol, Joseph F., Jr. "The Federal Magistrates Act: History and Development." Arizona State Law Journal 4 (1974): 565-78.