The power to award sanctions: does it belong in the hands of magistrate judges?

AuthorBell, David A.
  1. Introduction

    Since the enactment of the Federal Magistrates Act (Act)(1) in 1968, United States magistrate judges have assumed many of the duties and responsibilities of district judges.(2) Magistrate judges are often called upon, for example, to rule on discovery and suppression of evidence motions, issue reports and recommendations on dispositive motions, adjudicate petty offenses and misdemeanor cases, and even, with the consent of the parties, preside over the trial of civil actions.(3) It is no exaggeration to say, as the Supreme Court recently did, that "`the role of the magistrate in today's federal judicial system is nothing less than indispensable.'"(4)

    The Act authorizes a magistrate judge, upon designation by the district judge,(5) "to hear and determine any pretrial matter" except for eight enumerated exceptions.(6) Rule 72 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (Rule), which implements the Act,(7) similarly authorizes magistrate judges to "hear and determine" any "[n]ondispositive" civil matter.(8) Upon properly filed objections,(9) such determinations are subject to review by the district court under a clearly erroneous or contrary to law standard.(10)

    Magistrate judges do not have the authority, under the Act or Rule 72, to hear and determine dispositive matters.(11) Instead, they must make recommendations to the district judge for disposition.(12) These recommendations are subject to de novo review by the district judge, with no deference to the magistrate judge's recommendation.(13)

    In recent years, a disagreement has arisen in the courts over whether magistrate judges have jurisdiction to hear and determine motions for sanctions or, instead, must make recommendations for disposition to the district judge.(14) Four circuits -- the Second, Fifth, Ninth, and Tenth -- all have held that magistrate judges can enter sanctions orders.(15) More recently, the Sixth and Seventh Circuits have disagreed and held that magistrate judges are limited to recommending the disposition of sanctions motions.(16) The courts of appeals also have disagreed on the related, threshold issue of whether a postjudgment sanctions ruling based on pretrial conduct is even a "pretrial matter" subject to review by a magistrate judge under the Act or Rule 72.(17)

    Resolution of these related issues is important for at least two reasons. First, either a magistrate judge or a district judge must decide each of the thousands of motions, including sanctions motions, filed each year.18 If magistrate judges can decide these motions, subject only to review under a clearly erroneous or contrary to law standard, the workload of district judges will be reduced significantly, leaving them free to turn their attention to other important matters, including trials.(19)

    The second reason this issue is significant is that the narrow reading of magistrate judge jurisdiction by the Sixth and Seventh Circuits runs counter to congressional expansion of this jurisdiction since enactment of the Act in 1968.(20) This tendency toward restricting jurisdiction, if unchallenged, could pose even greater concerns for the already overtaxed federal district courts.(21)

    This Article first examines the history and operation of the Act and Rule 72.(22) Second, it analyzes the prevalence of sanctions motions and the conflicting case law on whether magistrate judges have jurisdiction to enter orders regarding such motions.(23) Finally, the Article concludes that the text of the Act and Rule 72, the legislative history of the Act and Rule 72, practical considerations, and policy grounds all support the proposal that magistrate judges have jurisdiction to enter sanctions orders.(24)

  2. History and Operation of the Federal Magistrates Act and Rule 72

    1. History of the Federal Magistrates Act

      In 1968, Congress enacted the Federal Magistrates Act to replace the outdated United States commissioner system(25) and to free district judges for more important tasks, including presiding over trials.(26) The purpose behind the Act was 'to help relieve the burgeoning caseloads of the United States District Courts and the corresponding burdens on federal trial judges[,]"(27) and its effect was to broaden greatly the jurisdiction of magistrates.(28)

      The Act gave magistrates the authority to exercise the duties formerly performed by United States Commissioners.(29) In addition, the Act authorized magistrates to conduct trials of "minor" criminal cases;(30) to assist district judges in civil and criminal pretrial and discovery proceedings;(31) and to carry out "such additional duties as are not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States."(32)

      In 1976, in response to several restrictive court decisions,(33) Congress amended the Act to give magistrates the authority to act as special masters in civil cases and further granted magistrate judges the authority to hear and determine "any pretrial matter" except for eight dispositive matters.(34) Three years later, Congress passed the Federal Magistrate Act of 1979, which authorized magistrates, upon written consent of the parties, to conduct civil trials and to enter final judgments.(35) Following the 1979 amendments to the Act, drafts of proposed new Rules 72 through 76 were circulated. These new rules took effect in 1983.(36)

      In 1990, Congress changed the title of magistrate to "`United States magistrate judge' to reflect more accurately the responsibilities and duties of the office."(37) These amendments, particularly the 1976 and 1979 amendments, have greatly expanded the role of magistrate judges.(38)

      Magistrate judges are judicial officers appointed by the judges of the district in which they sit, with the assistance of a citizen merit selection panel.(39) Although they perform many of the same functions as district judges,(40) unlike Article III judges, they do not serve for life. Instead, their term of office is eight years.(41) The duties of magistrate judges are established by the rules of the district court in which they serve.(42) Their salary is protected by statute from reduction,(43) and they can be removed by the district judge of that court "only for incompetency, misconduct, neglect of duty, or physical or mental disability."(44)

      Constitutional considerations require that final decisionmaking authority be exercised by Article III judges.(45) However, the Supreme Court has held that because the district court exercises "total control and jurisdiction" over the entire process, magistrate judges can conduct proceedings with regard to case dispositive motions.(46)

    2. The Operation of 28 U.S.C. [sections] 636 and Rule 72

      Section 636 of the Act sets forth the limits on a magistrate judge's jurisdiction to hear and determine matters that effectively dispose of the action under [sections] 636(b)(1)(A) or, alternatively, to make recommendations for disposition of the action under [sections] 636(b)(1)(B). Section 636(b) of the Act provides, in part:

      (1) Notwithstanding any provision of law to the contrary --

      (A) a judge may designate a magistrate to hear and

      determine any pretrial matter pending before the court, except

      a motion for injunctive relief, for judgment on the pleadings,

      for summary judgment, to dismiss or quash an indictment or

      information made by the defendant, to suppress evidence in

      a criminal case, to dismiss or to permit maintenance of a

      class action, to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon

      which relief can be granted, and to involuntarily dismiss an

      action. A judge of the court may reconsider any pretrial

      matter under this subparagraph (A) where it has been shown

      that the magistrate's order is clearly erroneous or contrary to


      (B) a judge may also designate a magistrate to conduct

      hearings, including evidentiary hearings, and to submit to a

      judge of the court proposed findings of fact and

      recommendations for the disposition, by a judge of the court, of any

      motion excepted in subparagraph (A)....


      (3) A magistrate may be assigned such additional duties as

      are not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the

      United States.(47)

      Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72, which was enacted to implement provisions of the Act,(48) provides, in part:

      Rule 72. Magistrate Judges; Pretrial Orders

      (a) Nondispositive Matters. A magistrate judge to whom

      a pretrial matter not dispositive of a claim or defense of a

      party is referred to hear and determine shall promptly

      conduct such proceedings as are required and when appropriate

      enter into the record a written order setting forth the

      disposition of the matter.... The district judge to whom the case

      is assigned shall consider ... objections and shall modify or

      set aside any portion of the magistrate judge's order found to

      be clearly erroneous or contrary to law.

      (b) Dispositive Motions and prisoner Petitions. A

      magistrate judge assigned without consent of the parties to

      hear a pretrial matter dispositive of a claim or defense of a

      party ... shall promptly conduct such proceedings as are


      A party objecting to the recommended disposition of the

      matter shall promptly arrange for the transcription of the

      record, or portions of it as all parties may agree upon or the

      magistrate judge deems sufficient, unless the district judge

      otherwise directs.... The district judge to whom the case is

      assigned shall make a de novo determination upon the

      record, or after additional evidence, of any portion of the

      magistrate judge's disposition to which specific written objection

      has been made in accordance with this rule. The district

      judge may accept, reject, or modify the recommended

      decision, receive further evidence, or recommit the matter to the

      magistrate judge with instructions.(49)

      Instead of reiterating the exceptions in [section] 636, Rule 72 uses the terms "nondispositive" and "dispositive" to identify, respectively, the matters as to which a magistrate judge can, and cannot, make determinations.(50) Although the list in...

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