How to Become a Federal Magistrate Judge

Find out what federal magistrate judges do and how you could become one. Learn about the education needed, the training required, the selection process, and more. Schools offering Juris Doctor degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

Career at a Glance

Magistrate judges work at the federal government level, overseeing trials at the direction of district judges. They hear trials for civil cases, as well as criminal cases for misdemeanors, and may handle pre-trial hearings on the district judge's behalf. Check out the table that follows for additional details.

Education Required Doctorate degree (J.D.)
Education Field of Study Law
Key Skills Attentiveness, objectivity, and the capacity to make informed decisions
Job Growth (2016-2026)* 6% overall (for all judges and magistrate judges)
Median Salary (2017)* $133,840 (for all judges and magistrate judges)

Source: *United States Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Does A Federal Magistrate Judge Do?

Magistrate judges exist to help handle the case load faced by the federal judicial system. If the parties involved in the case consent, a magistrate judge can take over hearing a case and rule on it in place of a district judge. While district judges are approved by the US Senate for lifetime terms, magistrate judges are appointed to eight year terms, if full time, or four year terms, if part time, by those district judges. Magistrate judges are allowed to oversee all cases except those criminal cases involving felonies, although they may still handle hearings before the trial, such as search warrants or summons, even in those cases.

What Education Is Needed To Become A Federal Magistrate Judge?

Like nearly all judges, magistrate judges must hold a law degree and be a member of the bar association in the state in which they will serve. A Juris Doctorate (J.D.) is the degree most commonly held, requiring four years of undergraduate study and three years of law school afterward. A magistrate judge needs to have a license to practice law from the state in which they will serve, and most will practice for several years before having the opportunity to accept a judgeship. Most judges are required to take continuing education courses as they serve, to help them keep abreast of changes in legislation that might affect their rulings.

How Can I Be Selected To Become a Federal Magistrate Judge?

Due to the limited number of magistrate judges in the country and the competitive appointment process, jobs as a magistrate judge can be very difficult to acquire. As magistrate judges are chosen by district judges, developing a relationship with the district judge in your area or otherwise making an impression is key. Courses designed to help aspiring judges do exist through organizations such as the National Judicial College, although even these courses are extremely competitive. An extremely small number of magistrate judges serve a dual role, also working as a clerk of the court, so positions aiding the judge, such as a clerk, may also open the door.

What Is Working As a Federal Magistrate Judge Like?

Magistrate judges serve in courtrooms, behind the bench like other judges, deciding the outcomes of cases and determining punishments in criminal matters. They may have their cases assigned to them by the district judge, and work closely with him or her, or have cases assigned randomly and rarely consult with the district judge at all. Judges are bound by strict rules and codes of ethics, which can greatly affect their life outside of the courtroom. They must avoid even the appearance of impropriety, and cannot allow the influence of outside parties to sway their decisions. Even family members must be free of conflict of interest.

How Are Magistrate Judges Paid?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the median income for all judges, including magistrate judges, was $133,840 in 2017. According to the Federal Judicial Center (FJC), the salary for magistrate judges is decided by the Judicial Conference, and, by law, these judges can only make up to 92% of what a district judge earns. In 2018, district court judges were paid $208,000 (FJC), so a full time magistrate judge could have taken home up to $191,000 that year.

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