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.

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