Are Magistrate Judges’ “Additional Duties” Stinking Up the Courtroom?

Author: Chris Gant, Associate Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review

On July 14, 2014, the Seventh Circuit in United States v. Harden held that the Federal Magistrates Act (FMA) does not permit magistrate judges to accept guilty pleas, even if both the prosecution and defense consent.[1] The decision severely limits a district court’s ability to manage its caseload and conduct business efficiently. Thankfully, this view on the Federal Magistrates Act is not universal: there is an emerging circuit split regarding whether a federal magistrate judge may accept a guilty plea to which all parties consent. The FMA contains a catch all provision that states, “[a] magistrate judge may be assigned such additional duties as are not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States.”[2] The split arises out of the Supreme Court’s decision in Peretz v. United States and how to interpret the “additional duties” provision of the statute. In Peretz, the Court allowed a magistrate judge to conduct voir dire because both the prosecutor and defense counsel consented. Furthermore, the Court created a test for whether a magistrate judge has jurisdiction to conduct voir dire under the FMA. After Peretz, appellate courts have largely disagreed over what duties can fall under the “additional duties” of the FMA. The Seventh Circuit has held that the acceptance of guilty pleas is “too important” to fall under this provision. In so doing, it disagreed with the Fourth Circuit, which had previously held that the acceptance of guilty pleas is comparable to other duties that magistrates are undoubtedly able to perform.[3] In light of both decisions, it is evident that the Fourth Circuit correctly interpreted the FMA and Peretz because the general language in the statute proves that Congress intended to give federal judges leeway to experiment with possible improvements in the efficiency of the judicial process.[4] Furthermore, the Seventh Circuit’s ruling allows defendants to enter a plea but then revoke it with no consequences, which in turn leads to judicial waste.

Peretz v. United States

The FMA grants district courts authority to assign magistrates certain enumerated functions as well as “such additional duties as are not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States.”[5] In Peretz, the defendant Peretz and his codefendant were charged with importing four kilograms of heroin.[6] At a pretrial conference, with counsel, Peretz agreed to select the jury before a magistrate.[7] The district judge then presided over the jury trial, where Peretz was found guilty.[8] On appeal, Peretz argued that the district court erred in allowing the magistrate to preside over jury selection. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine what duties could constitutionally fall under the “additional duties” clause of the FMA. The Court ruled that magistrate judges can be delegated duties that are “comparable in responsibility and importance” to the duties that are specified elsewhere in the Act.[9] Important to the Court was the generality of the category of “additional duties,” which indicated that Congress intended to give federal judges significant leeway to experiment with possible improvements in the efficiency of the judicial process.[10] However, in United States v. Harden, the Seventh Circuit did not read this precedent to allow magistrate judges’ duties to include the acceptance of guilty pleas.

United States v. Harden

Stacy Lee Harden was indicted and charged with intent to distribute five kilograms of cocaine.[11] Harden, his counsel, and the prosecutor signed a Notice Regarding Entry of Plea of Guilty, in which they consented to a magistrate judge conducting “Rule 11 proceedings” and accepting Harden’s guilty plea.[12] Despite the defendant’s consent to this through counsel, the Seventh Circuit determined that magistrates are not permitted to accept guilty pleas in felony cases. The court reasoned that the task of accepting a guilty plea is “too important” to be considered a mere “additional duty” under § 636(b)(3) of the FMA.[13] Additionally, the court determined that the supervision of a civil or misdemeanor trial was not a comparable duty to the acceptance of a guilty plea because, among other things, with a guilty plea a defendant is waiving constitutional rights—the right to a trial before a judge and jury.[14] Employing the judicial canon expressio unius exclusio alterius, the court read the FMA’s defined grant of authority to conduct civil and misdemeanor trials as an implicit withholding of the authority to preside over a felony trial.[15]

United States v. Benton

Unlike in the Seventh Circuit in Harden, the Fourth Circuit in Benton held that it was within the magistrate judge’s authority to accept a guilty plea.[16] Cedric Benton was charged with felony drug crimes and consented to pleading guilty in front of a magistrate judge. Following a Rule 11 hearing, he was sentenced to 262 months in jail by the district judge.[17] On appeal, Benton argued that the magistrate judge could not accept the guilty plea under the FMA.[18] The court rejected the argument and followed the idea in Peretz that the generality of “additional duties” was intended to give federal judges leeway to experiment with possible improvements in the efficiency of the judicial process. Additionally, Benton admitted that a magistrate judge may conduct a plea colloquy,[19] but asserted that a magistrate may not actually accept a plea; instead, Benton argued that the magistrate can only write a report and recommendation for the district court to accept the guilty plea.[20] The court disagreed, stating that the “acceptance of a plea is merely the natural culmination of a plea colloquy.”[21] The court also looked to the practical drawbacks of adopting Benton’s position. If the magistrate judge could not accept the plea bargain, it would give a defendant a dress rehearsal in which he can plead guilty before a magistrate judge, and then withdraw the plea without actually alleging that the Rule 11 hearing was deficient. This would make plea proceedings before a magistrate judge “meaningless.”[22]

Why Benton Is Better

The Seventh Circuit incorrectly interpreted the FMA and its ruling in Harden promotes inefficiency because it reduces the duties that could be performed by magistrate judges, thereby creating an unnecessary burden on district courts. In 2013, U.S. District Courts handled more than 84,000 criminal convictions throughout the country.[23] Among those, close to 82,000 entered a plea of guilty.[24] These statistics underscore the importance of plea bargains in the U.S. judicial system today, where nearly 97% of convictions are obtained through guilty pleas.

District courts should be afforded the ability to manage this heavy caseload in any way they see fit, within the bounds of the law. District courts currently manage their heavy caseload in large part by delegating work to magistrate judges. Moreover, under Benton, defendants are not being forced to enter a plea in front of a magistrate judge; they have a choice of consenting to the magistrate judge conducting the plea hearing or refusing and proceeding to the district court.[25] Further, the defendant’s constitutional rights are not being violated when the defendant consents to a plea hearing conducted by a magistrate judge.

As a policy matter, appellate courts should not limit the ways in which district courts manage their caseload without good reason, and should use the generality of the FMA’s language to allow district courts to operate efficiently. As the Fourth Circuit argued, the Seventh Circuit’s ruling would render the plea hearings in front of a magistrate judge meaningless. In turn, district courts would need to stop using magistrate judges for plea-acceptance procedures, which would add even more to the district court’s workload. Lastly, the Seventh Circuit’s ruling in Harden encourages “buyer’s remorse” by allowing a defendant to plead guilty in front of a magistrate but then retract the guilty plea in front of the district court, and would be a waste of judicial resources.

Expanding “Additional Duties” for Court Efficiency

The Federal Magistrates Act was created for the purpose of improving judicial efficiency. By reading the “additional duties” clause to include “accepting guilty pleas,” the Fourth Circuit furthered this purpose and helped ease the workload of federal district courts. In contrast, the Seventh Circuit’s ruling promotes inefficiency and allows defendants to have a “dress rehearsal” that would render their plea useless and waste judicial resources. To increase the federal courts’ efficiency and in accordance with the generality of the FMA’s language, appellate courts should adopt the Fourth Circuit’s position in Benton and allow magistrate judges to accept guilty pleas.

[1] United States v. Harden, 758 F.3d 886 (7th Cir. 2014).

[2] 28 U.S.C §636(b)(3).

[3] United States v. Benton, 523 F.3d 424 (4th Cir. 2008).

[4] Peretz v. United States, 501 U.S. 923, 932 (1991).

[5] 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(3).

[6] Peretz, 501 U.S. at 925.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id. at 933. The court found that with consent, a magistrate may perform supervision of entire civil and misdemeanor trials, which were comparable in responsibility and importance to presiding over voir dire at a felony trial.

[10] Id. at 932.

[11] United States v. Harden, 758 F.3d 886, 887 (7th Cir. 2014).

[12] Id. Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11 requires a plea colloquy for a judge to accept a guilty plea. The judge inquires into whether the defendant is competent; whether the defendant is making a voluntary choice to plead guilty; whether the defendant understands the charges and penalties he faces; whether the defendant understands the many constitutional rights he relinquishes; whether the defendant understands the terms of any plea agreement; and whether there is a legal and factual basis for the guilty plea, and thus good reason to believe the defendant actually committed a charged crime. Fed. R. Crim. P. 11.

[13] Harden, 758 F.3d 886, 888.

[14] Id.

[15] Id. at 889

[16] United States v. Benton, 523 F.3d 424 (4th Cir. 2008).

[17] Id. at 427.

[18] Id.

[19] A plea colloquy is a conversation between the judge and criminal defendant, under oath, which must occur for a guilty plea to be valid. Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(b).

[20] Id. at 431.

[21] Id.

[22] Id. at 432.

[23] Statistical Tables for the Federal Judiciary, Table D-4 (June 2013), available at (last visited October 24, 2014).

[24] Id.

[25] Defendants have a choice because they are required to consent in order for the magistrate judge to hear the plea. Benton, 523 F.3d 424 (4th Cir. 2008).


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