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Magistrate judges presided at 912, or 17.2 percent of the civil jury trials held in the federal courts for the one-year period ending September 30, 1994, according to statistics compiled by the Administrative Office. The percentages by circuits range from a high of 25.5 percent to a low of 7.1 percent.
"Lawyers increasingly have been urging their clients to consent to trial before magistrate judges in civil cases," said Magistrate Judge Robert Collings (D. Mass.), who has been following the numbers. "In many districts, magistrate judges can set an earlier trial date than a district judge, and the trial date is afirm one." Magistrate judges do not preside at criminal felony trials, and this may allow them more time to devote to civil cases. Said Collings, "Litigants who consent to a trial before a magistrate judge do not risk the danger of having their civil trial date usurped by a criminal jury trial, which has to take precedence." District courts have used different techniques to expand the use of magistrate judges to conduct civil trials. A number have found that initially assigning a case to both a magistrate judge and a district judge makes consent more likely because it identifies the magistrate judge who would preside at the trial, if the parties consent. Other courts have adopted a system where a certain percentage of civil cases are directly assigned to a magistrate judge and only if consent is not forthcoming is the case assigned to a district judge.
In addition to civil jury trials, magistrate judges conducted 831 bench trials and disposed of 6,092 civil consent cases without trial, conducted 1,795 evidentiary hearings in prisoner cases, 774 evidentiary hearings in non-prisoner cases, and 242 evidentiary hearings as special masters.
Since 1979, magistrate judges have been authorized by law to try civil
cases with the consent of the parties. Appeals from judgments entered by
magistrate judges after trial are to courts of appeals, unless the
parties explicitly stipulate that the appeals will be to a district
judge. In Collings' Massachusetts court, two district judges and a
magistrate judge were paired for an experiment where the judges try a
list of civil cases during a particular month without regard to whom the
case was originally assigned.
from The Third Branch 9/95
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