The Role of Magistrate Judges in the Acceptance of Felony Guilty Pleas

“Gavel and Court Documents” by weiss_paarz_photos is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Madeline Pinto, Associate Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review 

I. Introduction

Article III of the Constitution establishes the judicial branch of the federal government and grants Congress the power to establish courts inferior to the Supreme Court.[1] The framers of the Constitution intended Article III to protect the independence of the federal judiciary within the constitutional system of checks and balances and ensure that litigants enjoyed the right to be heard by an impartial and independent federal judge.[2] Pursuant to Article III, Congress established the federal magistrates program through the Federal Magistrates Act of 1968 (“FMA” or the “Act”), which permits district courts to delegate some judicial tasks to magistrate judges.[3] Magistrate judges can preside over civil jury trials and misdemeanor criminal trials with the consent of the parties and may “hear and determine any pretrial matter,” except specific dispositive motions.[4] In addition to these enumerated duties, “a magistrate judge can be assigned “such additional duties as are not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States.”[5]

The Fourth, Tenth, and Seventh Circuits are split as to whether the FMA’s “additional duties clause” authorizes federal magistrate judges to accept and enter felony guilty pleas with the defendant’s consent.[6] The Fourth and Tenth Circuits interpret the additional duties clause to allow magistrate judges to accept and enter felony guilty pleas with the defendant’s consent.[7] The Seventh Circuit takes the contrary position; magistrates do not have the power under the additional duties clause to accept or enter guilty pleas in felony cases.[8] Part II analyzes relevant statutes and prior case law related to this issue. Part III explains why the Seventh Circuit is correct.

II. Background

A. Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 59 and the Supreme Court’s Interpretation of the Federal Magistrates Act in Gomez and Peretz.

The Federal Committee on Rules enacted Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 59 to clarify which duties can be delegated to magistrate judges.[9] Rule 59 provides that when a district judge delegates a non-dispositive matter to a magistrate judge, the magistrate judge must issue an order stating the determination on the record.[10] In contrast, when a magistrate judge is faced with “any matter that may dispose of a charge or defense,” the magistrate judge must submit a report and recommendation to the district judge.”[11]

In Gomez v. United States,[12] the Supreme Court was asked to determine whether the additional duties clause of the FMA permits a federal magistrate judge to preside over jury selection in a felony trial without the defendant’s consent. The Court held that in order to fall within the additional duties clause of the FMA, a task must “reasonably bear some relation to the duties enumerated in the statute.”[13] The Court reasoned that Congress implicitly withheld from magistrate judges the authority to conduct felony trials by only granting magistrate judges the authority to preside over civil and misdemeanor trials.[14] Citing evidence that Congress considers jury selection to be part of a felony trial, the Court concluded that Congress did not intend for jury selection in felony trials to fall within the scope of the additional duties clause.[15]

The Court has also ruled on a magistrate’s power to oversee jury selection when the defendant consents.[16] In Peretz v. United States, the defendant consented two separate times to a magistrate’s supervision of jury selection.[17] The Court concluded that the defendant’s consent drastically changes the analysis conducted previously in Gomez.[18] The Court reasoned that jury selection is more similar to the functions a magistrate may perform with a defendant’s consent than the ministerial functions expressly authorized in the statute.[19] In particular, the Court noted that presiding over civil and criminal misdemeanor trials with the parties’ consent is “comparable in responsibility and importance to presiding over jury selection at a felony trial.”[20] Therefore, the Court held that the FMA’s additional duties clause permits a federal magistrate judge to preside over jury selection in a felony trial if the defendant consents.[21]

B. Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11 and the Circuit Courts’ Interpretation of the Federal Magistrates Act in United States v. Benton, United States v. Garcia, and United States v. Harden.

Under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11, criminal defendants can withdraw a guilty plea as a matter of right any time before the plea is accepted by the district court.[22] Once the court accepts the guilty plea, the defendant may withdraw the plea only if they “can show a fair and just reason for requesting the withdrawal.”[23] Before the district court accepts a guilty plea, it must conduct a plea colloquy, a preliminary hearing in which the defendant is placed under oath and the judge personally addresses the defendant in open court to advise the defendant of his rights, ensure the plea is voluntary, and determine that there exists a factual basis for the plea.[24] After conducting the plea colloquy, the district court will accept or reject the defendant’s guilty plea and enter the disposition on the record.[25]

In United States v. Benton, the Fourth Circuit addressed whether federal magistrate judges can accept and enter felony guilty pleas with the parties’ consent.[26] The defendant, Benton, pled guilty to conspiracy and consented to a federal magistrate judge conducting his plea hearing.[27] When Benton attempted to withdraw the guilty plea, the district court judge denied his motion.[28] Benton appealed, arguing that he should have been permitted to withdraw his plea as a matter of right because a federal magistrate judge may not accept and enter a felony guilty plea.[29] The Fourth Circuit held that accepting and entering a felony guilty plea is within the scope of the additional duties clause.[30] The Fourth Circuit concluded that accepting a guilty plea in a felony case is of comparable importance and responsibility to the tasks magistrates are explicitly authorized to perform by the FMA.[31] The court reasoned that because Rule 11 provides magistrate judges with detailed guidance on how to properly accept a felony plea, acceptance “involves none of the complexity and requires far less discretion than that necessary to perform many tasks unquestionably within a magistrate judge’s authority, such as conducting felony jury selection and presiding over entire civil and misdemeanor trials.”[32] The Fourth Circuit noted that allowing magistrate judges to accept and enter felony guilty pleas best serves the underlying purposes of the FMA: increasing judicial efficiency and preserving scarce judicial resources.[33]

The Tenth Circuit also permits magistrates to accept guilty pleas in felony cases.[34] However, the Tenth Circuit noted in its opinion that, were it not bound by circuit precedent, it would hold that because acceptance of a plea is dispositive with respect to the felony charge, the magistrate accepting the plea must issue a report and recommendation to the district court regardless of consent or lack thereof.[35]

The Seventh Circuit takes the opposite position, denying that magistrates have any authority under the FMA to accept pleas in felony cases regardless of consent.[36] The Seventh Circuit concluded that accepting a felony guilty plea is not comparable in importance or responsibility to a magistrate’s other duties because “[o]nce a defendant’s guilty plea is accepted, the prosecution is at the same stage as if a jury had returned a verdict of guilty after a trial.”[37] Thus, just as the FMA does not authorize magistrate judges to preside over felony trials, the Act does not authorize a magistrate judge to accept a felony guilty plea, even with the defendant’s consent.[38] The Seventh Circuit did concede that magistrate judges are permitted to conduct Rule 11(b) colloquies for the purpose of submitting a report and recommendation to the district court judge.[39] Although the Seventh Circuit recognized that Congress intended the FMA’s additional duties clause “‘to give federal judges significant leeway to experiment with possible improvements in the efficiency of the judicial process,”” the need to improve the efficiency of the court system did not outweigh the importance of guilty pleas in felony cases and “the protections waived through them.”[40]

III. Discussion

A. Accepting a Felony Guilty Plea is not Comparable in Responsibility or Importance to the Duties Enumerated in the FMA.

Acceptance and entry of a felony guilty plea has much greater constitutional implications than the duties enumerated in the FMA.[41] As explained by the Seventh Circuit in Harden, when a criminal defendant enters a guilty plea to a felony charge, he waives his fundamental constitutional right to a trial and may even waive his appellate and habeas corpus rights as well.[42] The severity of the consequences of entering a guilty plea to a felony charge make it imperative that courts give due care to protecting defendants’ constitutional rights. Unlike jury selection, a defendant’s entrance of a guilty plea poses a significant risk of irreversible error or even irreparable harm. In contrast, after jury selection, a defendant receives “numerous other substantive opportunities to contest the government’s evidence, case, and conduct before any determination of guilt.”[43] The acceptance of a felony guilty plea is also not comparable to presiding over a civil or misdemeanor trial. The FMA expressly grants magistrate judges the authority to preside over civil and misdemeanor trials but makes no mention of felony trials. Applying the expressio unius est exclusio alterius canon of statutory construction,[44] the Supreme Court has determined that this “carefully defined grant of authority to conduct [civil and misdemeanor trials] should be construed as an implicit withholding of the authority to preside at a felony trial.”[45] Congress’ implicit proscription of magistrate judges’ authority to preside over felony trials suggests that Congress considered felony trials to be distinct from both civil and misdemeanor trials and to be too important and require too much responsibility to be conducted by magistrate judges. Accepting a felony guilty plea disposes of felony charges and, thus, has the same effect on a defendant’s status and rights as a felony trial.[46] Thus, just as Congress did not intend for magistrate judges to have the ability to preside over felony trials, Congress also most likely did not intend for magistrate judges to have the authority to accept and enter felony guilty pleas.[47]

Because accepting and entering a felony guilty plea does not fall within the authority granted to magistrate judges by the FMA, allowing magistrate judges to perform this function contravenes the fundamental purpose of Article III to “protect the role of the independent  judiciary within the constitutional scheme of tripartite government and to safeguard litigants’ right to have claims decided before judges who are free from potential domination by other branches of government.”[48] In particular, a criminal defendant will no longer benefit from Article III’s guarantee that his felony guilty plea will be accepted and entered by a judge who is impartial and entirely independent from the political branches of the federal government.[49] The framers of the Constitution also intended Article III to help preserve the federal government’s delicate system of checks and balances by ensuring that Congress could not encroach on the powers of the judicial branch by “transfer[ing] jurisdiction to non-Article III tribunals for the purpose of emasculating constitutional courts.”[50] Allowing magistrate judges to exercise a power beyond their statutory authority erodes the protections that Article III provides the judiciary and jeopardizes the independence of the judicial branch within the constitutional system of checks and balances by allowing non-Article III judges to impinge on the authority the Constitution vests exclusively in Article III courts.[51]

Although the important constitutional issues at stake when a defendant enters a guilty plea to a felony charge merit consideration by a district court judge, a magistrate judge is fully capable of conducting the preliminary plea colloquy and making a recommendation to the district judge. Conducting a Rule 11 plea colloquy is of comparable importance and responsibility to the other duties permitted under the FMA. In conducting a plea colloquy, the magistrate judge advises the defendant of his rights, ensures the plea is voluntary, and determines whether there exists a factual basis for the plea in accordance with the detailed guidelines provided by Rule 11.[52] These tasks are comparable to those a magistrate judge performs when presiding over jury selection or a civil or misdemeanor trial in terms of their complexity and the discretion they require. When a magistrate judge conducts a plea colloquy for the purpose of submitting a report and recommendation, the magistrate judge’s decision does not directly affect the criminal defendant’s constitutional rights or dispose of the underlying felony charge. Instead, the magistrate judge merely ensures that the procedures expressly outlined in Rule 11 are carried out properly and leaves the ultimate disposition of the felony guilty plea to the district court judge. As such, presiding over a plea colloquy does not carry the same constitutional importance as acceptance of a felony guilty plea or bear the same resemblance to presiding over a felony trial and, thus, is far more comparable to the duties the FMA authorizes magistrate judges to perform with a defendant’s consent. Further, maintaining this distinction between conducting a preliminary plea colloquy and accepting and entering a guilty plea best ensures that both individual defendants and the judiciary as a whole continue to receive the full protections of Article III. This approach guarantees that a criminal defendant’s guilty plea will be considered and ultimately disposed of by an independent and impartial Article III judge and ensures that non-Article III judges are precluded from infringing on the authority and independence of the judicial branch.

B. The Fourth and Tenth Circuits’ Decisions Misinterpret the Legislative History of the FMA.

The legislative history of the FMA indicates that Congress intended the Act’s additional duties clause to allow district court judges to delegate subsidiary, ministerial matters to magistrate judges in order to spend more time on weighty, adjudicatory duties.[53] In a Committee Report, the drafters of the FMA explained that the additional duties clause was enacted to allow district court judges “to experiment in the assignment of other duties to magistrates” which are not expressly enumerated in the statute.[54] The drafters reasoned that permitting district court judges to experiment with the use of magistrate judges would provide the district court judges with “‘increased time . . . for the careful and unhurried performance of their vital and traditional adjudicatory duties.’”[55] The acceptance of a felony guilty plea disposes of the underlying charge in the same manner as a felony trial and, thus, is properly considered a dispositive, adjudicatory matter.[56] Accepting a guilty plea is also not merely a ministerial task but an act of great import due to its effect on a criminal defendant’s fundamental constitutional rights. Thus, the acceptance of a felony guilty plea is exactly the type of weighty, adjudicatory matter that Congress hoped the FMA would allow district court judges to consider more carefully and thoroughly. Therefore, although the Fourth and Tenth Circuits are correct in noting that Congress enacted the additional duties clause of the FMA for the purpose of allowing district court judges the freedom to experiment with the use of magistrate judges and improve the efficiency of the court system, these circuits erroneously identified the acceptance of a felony guilty plea as one of the subsidiary tasks Congress intended to fall within the additional duties clause.

C. The Fourth Circuit Overlooks the Effect of Rule 59 on the FMA.

As noted by the Tenth Circuit in dicta, acceptance of a felony guilty plea disposes of the underlying charge and, thus, falls within Rule 59’s definition of a dispositive matter.[57] As such, if a district judge delegates the task of accepting a felony guilty plea to a magistrate judge, the plain language of Rule 59 mandates that the magistrate judge submit a recommendation to the district judge rather than issue an order stating the determination on the record.[58] The Seventh Circuit’s decision implicitly recognizes the limitation Rule 59 places on a magistrate judge’s authority by correctly construing the FMA to permit magistrate judges to conduct plea colloquies for the sole purpose of submitting a report and recommendation to the district judge who will ultimately accept or reject the plea.[59] Therefore, even if it is determined that acceptance of a felony guilty plea constitutes an “additional duty” within the meaning of the FMA, acceptance of a felony guilty plea is a dispositive matter subject to the requirements of Rule 59(b). Thus, a magistrate judge must submit a report and recommendation to the district judge rather than directly accept and enter the guilty plea on the record.

IV. Conclusion

The Seventh Circuit adopted the correct interpretation of the FMA in Harden. The Seventh Circuit correctly concluded that accepting a felony guilty plea is not comparable in importance or responsibility to the duties enumerated in the FMA. Additionally, the Seventh Circuit’s interpretation of the additional duties clause is consistent with Congress’ intent that the FMA allow district judges to delegate subsidiary tasks to magistrate judges in order to have more time to carefully consider dispositive, adjudicatory matters of greater importance. However, even if it is determined that the FMA authorizes magistrate judges to accept and enter felony guilty pleas, a magistrate judge may not unilaterally dispose of the guilty plea, but instead, must submit a report and recommendation because accepting a felony guilty plea is a dispositive matter subject to Rule 59(b)(1). Therefore, the Seventh Circuit correctly interpreted the additional duties clause of the FMA as only authorizing federal magistrate judges to preside over Rule 11 colloquies for the purpose of submitting a report and recommendation to the district court judge.

[1] U.S. Const. Art. III § 1.

[2] Commodity Futures Trading Comm’n v. Schor, 478 U.S. 833, 848 (1986).

[3] United States v. Garcia, 936 F.3d 1128, 1134 (11th Cir. 2019); Peretz v. United States, 501 U.S. 923, 924 (1991).

[4] 28 U.S.C.§636 (b)(1)(A).

[5] Id. at (b)(3).

[6] Garcia, 936 F.3d 1128; United States v. Harden, 758 F.3d 886 (7th Cir. 2014); United States v. Benton, 523 F.3d 424 (4th Cir. 2008).

[7] Benton, 523 F.3d at 433; Garcia, 936 F.3d at 1139.

[8] Harden, 758 F.3d at 888-89.

[9] Garcia, 935 F.3d at 1136-37.

[10] Fed. R. Crim. P. 59(a).

[11] Id. at (b)(1).

[12] 490 U.S. 858, 859 (1989).

[13] Id.

[14] Id. at 871-72.

[15] Id. at 872.

[16] Peretz, 501 U.S. at 924-26.

[17] Id. at 925.

[18] Id. at 932.

[19] Id. at 933.

[20] Id.

[21] Id. at 933; 936.

[22] Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(d)(1).

[23] Id. at (d)(2).

[24] Id. at (b)(1)-(3).

[25] Id.

[26] 523 F.3d at 428.

[27] Id.

[28] Id. at 427.

[29] Id.

[30] Id. at 433.

[31] Id. at 431-32.

[32] Id.

[33] Id. at 433.

[34] Garcia, 936 F.3d at 1130.

[35] Id.

[36] Harden, 758 F.3d at 888.

[37] Id. at 889.

[38] Id.

[39] Id. at 891.

[40] Id. (quoting Peretz, 501 U.S. at 932.).

[41] Harden, 758 F.3d at 888.

[42] Id.

[43] Id. at 889.

[44] Expressio unius est exclusio alterius is a Latin phrase meaning “where a constitution or statute specifies certain things, the designation of such things excludes all others.” It refers to the canon of statutory construction that if a statute lists certain things specifically, the list should be considered exclusive. Stephen Adams, Listing the Canons of Construction (Feb. 16, 2019), https://isb.idaho.gov/wp-content/uploads/canons_w_commentary.pdf.

[45] Gomez, 490 U.S. at 872.

[46] See Harden, 758 F.3d at 889.

[47] See Id.

[48] Commodity Futures Trading Comm’n, 478 U.S. at 848.

[49] See Id.; See also, Garcia 936 F.3d at 1140-41.

[50] Commodity Futures Trading Comm’n, 478 U.S. at 850.

[51] See Id.

[52] Fed. R. Crim. P. 11.

[53] Gomez, 490 U.S. at 869.

[54] Id. (quoting H.R. Rep. No. 94-1609, at 12.)

[55] Id.

[56] Garcia, 936 F.3d at 1140.

[57] Id.

[58] See Id. at 1140-41.

[59] See Harden, 758 F.3d at 891.