Introduction

Magistrate judges are “nothing less than indispensable” to the modern judicial system.1 While they are not Article III judges, they perform duties that Article III judges would otherwise perform, including presiding over civil jury trials,2 conducting misdemeanor trials,3 and conducting voir dire and presiding over jury selection in felony trials.4 These powers may be delegated to magistrate judges under the Federal Magistrate Act of 19795 (FMA 1979) and its subsequent amendments. In addition to specifically enumerated powers, the FMA6 provides that “magistrate judge[s] may be assigned such additional duties as are not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States.”7

This Additional Duties Clause was designed to provide flexibility, allowing courts to experiment with delegating duties not specifically contemplated by Congress.8 Such experiments have not always been upheld, though, and the clause has been interpreted to have limitations beyond the textual rule that such duties may not be “inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States.”9 For example, it is broadly recognized that magistrate judges may not conduct felony trials under the FMA.10 These additional limitations have been derived not from the Constitution, but from the FMA itself.11

The Supreme Court has held that delegations under the Additional Duties Clause should be “comparable in responsibility and importance to”12 and “bear some relation to” the enumerated duties.13 Thus, when determining which powers are delegable to magistrate judges under the Additional Duties Clause, circuit courts compare the duty sought to be delegated with those specifically enumerated in the FMA.14

The circuits agree about many of the powers that may be delegated, but have divided over whether magistrate judges are empowered by the FMA to accept felony guilty pleas.15 Three circuits—the Tenth,16 Eleventh,17 and Fourth18—have held that magistrate judges may accept felony guilty pleas, while the Seventh Circuit has held that magistrate judges may conduct plea colloquies19 but may not formally accept guilty pleas.20

Accepting a felony guilty plea has significant legal consequences, directly affecting a defendant’s rights following the plea’s acceptance. Until a guilty plea is formally accepted, a defendant may withdraw the plea as a matter of course, “for any reason or no reason.”21 However, after formal acceptance but before sentencing, the plea may be withdrawn for a “fair and just” reason.22 Ordinarily such a reason must be more than the defen­dant’s regret, and instead must be based on some flaw in the pre-plea process, such as inadequate assistance of counsel. Therefore, plea acceptance makes the plea legally binding and largely irrevocable. After guilty plea acceptance, defendants are in the same position they would be in after receiving a guilty verdict after trial.23

Magistrate judges conduct a large volume of plea proceedings, both in circuits that permit magistrate judges to formally accept guilty pleas and in those that do not. In 2014 alone, magistrate judges conducted 29,536 plea proceedings.24 If magistrate judges are empowered to accept guilty pleas under the FMA, the circuits that divide plea colloquies from plea acceptance may be introducing needless redundancy and incurring “complete waste[s] of judicial resources.”25 If, however, magistrate judges are not empowered to accept guilty pleas, thousands of defendants have been prematurely bound to guilty pleas and improperly denied the right to withdraw those pleas. Even if outcomes would be affected in only 1 percent of guilty plea proceedings conducted by magistrate judges, there could be hundreds of wrongful convictions from 2014 alone.

This Comment analyzes whether the Additional Duties Clause empowers magistrate judges to accept felony guilty pleas under a new framework utilizing congressional guidance regarding the clause’s scope. Part I reviews the history of the federal magistrate system, including historical predecessors to magistrate judges and the origins of the FMA. Part II canvasses existing cases on the power of magistrate judges to accept guilty pleas. Finally, Part III introduces an objective framework for analyzing the scope of the Additional Duties Clause. Applying this framework to felony guilty pleas, Part III then argues that the FMA does not empower magistrate judges to accept guilty pleas in felony cases, based on the evident importance that Congress assigns to guilty plea acceptance in the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. Part III also explores the practical implications of denying magistrate judges this power, both for individual defendants and for the judicial system.

  • 1. Peretz v United States, 501 US 923, 928 (1991), quoting Government of the Virgin Islands v Williams, 892 F2d 305, 308 (3d Cir 1989).
  • 2. See 28 USC § 636(c)(1).
  • 3. See 28 USC § 636(a)(3); 18 USC § 3401.
  • 4. See Peretz, 501 US at 935–36, 940 (approving the delegation of these duties with the parties’ consent).
  • 5. Pub L No 96-82, 93 Stat 643.
  • 6. Throughout this Comment, “the FMA” refers to the current code, while “FMA 19XX” refers to the act passed in year 19XX.
  • 7. 28 USC § 636(b)(3).
  • 8. Jurisdiction of U.S. Magistrates, HR Rep No 94-1609, 94th Cong, 2d Sess 12 (1976).
  • 9. 28 USC § 636(b)(3). For an example of one such interpretation, see Gomez v United States, 490 US 858, 864–65 (1989) (“When a statute . . . assigns specific duties [to an office], those duties outline the attributes of the office. Any additional duties performed pursuant to a general authorization . . . reasonably should bear some relation to the specified duties.”).
  • 10. See Gomez, 490 US at 871–72.
  • 11. See, for example, id.
  • 12. Peretz, 501 US at 933.
  • 13. Gomez, 490 US at 864.
  • 14. See, for example, United States v Woodard, 387 F3d 1329, 1333 (11th Cir 2004) (per curiam) (“[W]e find that conducting a Rule 11 proceeding is comparable to the FMA’s enumerated duties. Therefore, we . . . hold[ ] that a magistrate judge has the authority under the ‘additional duties’ clause of FMA to conduct Rule 11 proceedings when the defendant consents.”).
  • 15. See United States v Harden, 758 F3d 886, 891 (7th Cir 2014) (“We note that our reasoning [that magistrate judges may not accept guilty pleas] places us in conflict with several of our sister circuits.”).
  • 16. See United States v Ciapponi, 77 F3d 1247, 1251 (10th Cir 1996).
  • 17. See Woodard, 387 F3d at 1333.
  • 18. See United States v Benton, 523 F3d 424, 433 (4th Cir 2008).
  • 19. The plea colloquy is the process, required by Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(b), by which the court must “address the defendant personally in open court” to inform the defendant of his rights and the charges against him, as well as to establish that the plea is knowing, voluntary, and factually based. FRCrP 11(b).
  • 20. See Harden, 758 F3d at 891.
  • 21. FRCrP 11(d)(1).
  • 22. FRCrP 11(d)(2)(B). A defendant may also withdraw a guilty plea after it has been accepted if the court rejects the plea agreement. FRCrP 11(d)(2)(A).
  • 23. See Harden, 758 F3d at 889.
  • 24. Table S-17: Matters Disposed of by U.S. Magistrate Judges during the 12-Month Periods Ending September 30, 2005 through 2014 *1, archived at http://perma.cc/V9NP-KNJ7.
  • 25. Benton, 523 F3d at 432.