Difference between a Judge and a Magistrate

Updated on August 18, 2017

It’s quite common to think that a judge is no different from a magistrate, especially when it comes to their roles and responsibilities. They are not the same, and this article aims to explain why.

Definitions

Judge
A district court judge in discussion with a hearing officer

A judge is the person in charge in a court of law. He/she may be the only person in control or they may be a member of a panel of judges. The powers, responsibilities, training, and appointment of a judge are not uniform across various jurisdictions. The judge is expected to preside over a trial impartially, and usually in a public court session attended by the parties or their attorneys. Witnesses and other important evidence are presented to the judge by the barristers. After the arguments are heard and the credibility of the parties are assessed, the judge issues a ruling based on his/her personal judgment. Depending on the jurisdiction, a jury may share the authority wielded by the judge. A judge presides over bigger and more complex cases.

In US federal courts, a magistrate judge is a judge chosen to assist district court judges in carrying out their duties. Federal district judges appoint magistrate judges via a majority vote.There are instances when the President nominates a magistrate judge to fill district judge vacancies. A full-time magistrate judge serves an eight-year term while a part-time magistrate has a four-year term. A magistrate judge generally presides over first appearances of criminal defendants, the setting of bail, and administrative duties. Other duties of magistrates are determined as deemed appropriate to the requirements of the court.

Magistrate judges handle criminal proceedings such as petty offenses and misdemeanor cases. They also have the authority to issue summonses, search warrants, and arrest warrants in all criminal cases. Magistrate judges can take criminal complaints, conduct detention hearings, and set conditions of detention or release. In addition, magistrates are authorized to administer oaths and extradition proceedings. In civil cases, magistrates can issue orders in pretrial cases. They can sometimes be assigned to write recommendations and reports regarding dispositive matters to the district judge. They can also review evidence and documentation presented by opposing parties in the same way district judges do.

Judge vs Magistrate

So what’s the difference between a judge and a magistrate? One defining difference is the authority each of them wields. Judges handle more complex and larger cases while magistrate judges preside over minor offenses such as traffic violations and petty theft. Judges often have a wider jurisdiction that can cover a state and even the whole country. A magistrate judge, on the other hand, typically exercises jurisdiction within a particular district, region, or county. A judge does not perform administrative functions while a magistrate judge may write recommendations and reports about dispositive matters to the district judge.

The US Senate confirms the district judges nominated by the President. They serve their terms for life. Magistrate judges are elected by district judges via a majority vote. They either serve full-time for eight years or part-time for four years. Magistrates may also be reappointed as needed.

Comparison Chart

JudgeMagistrate
Handles bigger, complex casesHandles minor cases and administrator roles
Jurisdiction may cover the whole countryJurisdiction limited to a district or county
Life-long termMay serve a four to eight-year term
Candidates are nominated by the President and approved by the SenateAppointed by district judges via majority voting