Magistrate judges in federal court have limited authority compared to the United States District Court judges who employ them. Magistrate judges handle responsibilities and cases that the judges regard as rather tedious and not worth their time and trouble. Thus, the magistrate judges handle petty offenses and misdemeanor criminal cases. With the consent of the parties they can adjudicate civil cases.
The district court judges who oversee their work are nominated by the president, and if confirmed by the Senate, they are appointed for life. The United States District Courts are our federal trial courts. With the exception of the nine justices on the SCOTUS and the federal judges on the Circuit Court of Appeals in which their district is situated, the district court judges are absolute masters of their domain, subject only to abiding by the United States Constitution and its amendments, including the Bill of Rights, and appellate and Supreme court review of their decisions. Depending on the circumstances and applicable laws, they also have the power to order the POTUS to do or to stop doing something.
Vested with virtually unlimited power to decide the cases and controversies that are assigned to them, even the most gracious and polite district court judges eventually develop an expectation that if they say “frog,” to someone, they expect that person to respond by asking “how high do I jump, your honor.” Should you appear before one of them as a party to a lawsuit, a lawyer representing a party to a lawsuit, a witness testifying in a case, a juror, or as an observer sitting in the audience, you best be on your best behavior with hat in hand and ready to address them formally as “Your Honor.”
Do not even think about entering a courtroom with a cell phone or a camera because you will be ordered to immediately leave the courtroom and if you do not move fast enough, you will be escorted out.
When they reach age 65, they can opt for senior status, which is a form of semi-retirement at full pay and benefits in which they get to control the number of cases assigned to them. They also have the option of travelling to any another district that is backlogged with cases and agree to lend a hand to reduce the backlog by taking a few cases leaving them plenty of time to enjoy living in a new community and exploring its amenities. If my life had taken a different path, I would be splitting my time between Seattle and Hawaii.
In many ways it is the perfect job providing an endless supply of intellectually stimulating cases with important issues that occasionally affect all Americans.
United States Magistrate Judges handle all of the initial appearances in the federal court system. They advise defendants of their legal rights, confirm counsel, review complaints and the affidavits of probable cause filed in support of the charge(s) in the complaint, and make sure that each defendant understands the charges against them. They also conduct detention hearings, which are bail hearings, and either detain defendants without bail or set bail and conditions of release.
Magistrate judges also conduct preliminary hearings to determine whether probable cause exists to support the charge(s) in the complaint. Unlike the probable cause determination at the initial appearance, which is based only on a review of the affidavit attached to the complaint, the probable cause determination at the preliminary hearing usually is based on the testimony of the agent whose affidavit was filed with the complaint.
The federal prosecutor conducts the direct examination and defense counsel cross examines. The scope of the hearing is supposed to be limited to the issue of probable cause, but most defense lawyers, including me, attempt to venture as far afield as the magistrate judge will permit to obtain as much discovery as possible.
In Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s case that might include inquiring about Dzhokhar’s getaway and the death of Tamerlan, Dzhokhar’s role in the offense compared to Tamerlan’s, the identity of the driver whose car was allegedly hijacked and how he got away and whether he called police, and what Dzhokhar told the interrogators.
Assuming for the sake of argument that prosecutors seek the death penalty and Dzhokhar is convicted, with one exception, his age, youthful appearance, emotional maturity, ability to reason, significant wounds and most important, his role in the offense, likely will be the factors that the jury will focus on in deciding whether to sentence him to death or to life without parole.
The one exception or wild card in the trial may be police misconduct and a government effort to conceal that misconduct that persists through the trial. For example, who ran over Tamerlan and dragged him 30 to 40 feet? Was it Dzhokhar attempting to elude capture or was it someone driving a police SUV?
I hope this brief description clarifies any questions you have about the duties and responsibilities of United States Magistrate Judges and the United States District Court Judges who employ them.
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