SC Lawyer, July 2008, #2. The Role of U.S. Magistrate Judges in the Disposition of Civil Cases.

AuthorBy M. Malissa Burnette

South Carolina Lawyer


SC Lawyer, July 2008, #2.

The Role of U.S. Magistrate Judges in the Disposition of Civil Cases

South Carolina LawyerJuly 2008The Role of U.S. Magistrate Judges in the Disposition of Civil CasesBy M. Malissa BurnetteI recently represented a client in a Title VII employment discrimination case and was explaining to him that we would be having a hearing before the magistrate judge. With a puzzled look he exclaimed, "Oh, that must be the same judge where Uncle Charlie tried to talk his way out of that speed trap in Forest Acres. I thought my case would be in a different court." After some further discussion, my client understood that his case was, indeed, in a different court and that there is more than one type of magistrate.

The U.S. magistrates are special-jurisdiction judges appointed by the district court judges to assist with the caseload of the court, improve access to the federal courts and to increase the overall efficiency of the federal judiciary. The present system is governed by the Federal Magistrates Act of 1968, 28 U.S.C. §§ 604, 631-639 and 18 U.S.C. §§ 3060, 3401-3402. The Act established the U.S. magistrate judge as a new judicial office in the U.S. District Court. The magistrates are appointed by majority vote of the judges of the district court following recommendation of five qualified candidates by a merit selection panel. Full-time magistrates serve eight-year terms, and part-time magistrates serve four-year terms.

Magistrate judges have both criminal and civil jurisdiction set forth by statute. This article will focus on the magistrate judges' civil jurisdiction, particularly with respect to the handling of dispositive motions.

Civil jurisdiction

Civil jurisdiction of the magistrate judge is conveyed via consent of the parties or by delegation of duties (referral) by a district judge. The magistrate, upon referral of a case, is authorized to enter final decisions on all non-dispositive matters and to prepare recommendations for consideration by a district judge on all dispositive motions. If the parties have consented to trial before the magistrate, the magistrate judge has full authority to assume the role of trial judge for all purposes, presides over jury and non-jury trials and makes the final decisions on both dispositive and non-dispositive matters.

Magistrate judges exist to support and expedite the functioning of the district court and thus must remain flexible and able to accept new assignments in the court's discretion. Some specific powers and duties of the magistrate judges in South Carolina are set out in the Local Civil Rules. The establishment of magistrates' duties in the local rules reflects the fact that the district judges retain complete discretion in the number, scope and types of cases referred to the magistrates. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(4), (c)(2) and (4).

Two significant types of civil cases are automatically referred to the magistrate judges by way of the local rules:

RULE 73.02: Assignment of Duties to Magistrate Judges.

(A) . . .

(B) Civil Cases.

(1) . . .

(2) Automatic References. The Clerk of Court shall assign the following matters to a full-time Magistrate Judge upon filing:

(a) All motions for remand, dismissal, or judgment on the pleadings in actions filed under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for review of an administrative determination regarding entitlement to benefits under the Social Security Act and related statutes;

. . .

(g) All pretrial proceedings involving litigation arising out of employment discrimination cases invoking federal statutes which proscribe unfair discrimination in employment, including 42 U.S.C. §§...

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