Proceed with a magistrate vs. a district judge?
December 19, 2011 7:30 PM   Subscribe

Pros and cons of consenting to disposition of a case by a magistrate judge vs. sticking with U.S. District Judge.

I'm a journalist who, because of a badly-handled FOIA request, am a pro se litigant in Federal Court (SDNY, if it matters.) The judge assigned all non-dispositive matters to a magistrate judge, and defendants' counsel and I had our first status conference in front of the magistrate today. We're scheduled to make motions/cross-motions for summary judgment in pretty quickly, so we should have a resolution soon, I hope.

My question -- and you are not my lawyers, and I will not consider any answer here to be legal advice -- is what the pros and cons are of consenting to proceed in front of the magistrate judge for the disposition of the case versus withholding consent and going in front of the district judge.

On one hand, the district judge is more of a known quantity -- I've read some of his judgments, and he's an interesting character who's not afraid of a little iconoclasm. I think this may be to my advantage as I'm suing the government. And when it comes to an appeal, I'm wondering if a district judge's opinion would be more likely to hold up than a magistrates', which I would also consider an advantage. (I think the gov't is more likely to appeal than I am.)

On the other, I don't want to break too radically with standard protocol, which seems to lean in favor of consent. Also, in the 5 minutes I had before the magistrate, I was generally favorably impressed with his demeanor... and he had clearly read and absorbed all the filings and correspondence, so he seems conscientious.

I don't think I'll get much extra speed with the magistrate, so that's not really a major factor.

Does anyone have any thoughts/impressions/general observations/etc. that might help me decide whether or not to sign that consent form?

Thanks in advance, hivemind!
posted by cgs06 to Law & Government (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I think you typically do get more speed with a magistrate judge than a district judge. This may not be true everywhere, but it likely is in S.D.N.Y. There is no standard protocol in favor of consent, so you're also wrong about that (and neither judge gets to learn which party did or did not consent to jurisdiction).

A lot of this depends on information that you haven't given us. Who the judges are and how the court of appeals views them could influence the likelihood of reversal on appeal, but that depends on who the judges are.

The biggest factor is whether the judge is favorable for your kind of case. Again, this depends on who the judge is, and not whether he or she is a magistrate or district judge.

Honestly, it probably doesn't matter. The government will know which judge is better for them, and they will consent or not (remember, each party has a unilateral veto over magistrate jurisdiction) based on whether whether that benefits them. Actually, if you really don't know and don't want to share the relevant information to try to find out, that weighs against consenting to magistrate jurisdiction: the parties only get to veto the magistrate, and if the government wants the magistrate, you probably don't.
posted by J. Wilson at 8:14 PM on December 19, 2011

Mod note: Comment deleted. Revealing the names of specific judges in this case is really far afield from the purpose of Ask Metafilter, and far more into Get Your Own Lawyer territory. General advice is fine, but this is TMI. Email is an option.
posted by taz (staff) at 9:34 PM on December 19, 2011

If the district judge has referred you, it might be kind of an eyes-roll moment for the district judge to have to try/resolve the case. I've heard federal judges say this in person FWIW.

So will the case be decided on summary judgment for certain (no fact issues?)? If so, don't sign the consent but make it clear you want the district court to refer the dispositive motions to the magistrate. The magistrate issues a report and recommendation (R&R) on the motions, which the district court can then adopt/modify/deny/whatever.

Wouldn't this sort of let you get the best of both worlds and make it easier for the district judge (or his law clerk) to decide the case? See Fed R Civ P 72(b) and 28 USC 636(b)(1).

I'm not your lawyer, don't want to be, etc.
posted by resurrexit at 7:55 AM on December 20, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks, J. Wilson, resurrexit.

It's almost certain that this will be decided on summary judgment; the magistrate set a schedule for filing our motion papers, and since both parties are moving/cross-moving in that direction, I doubt there will be any unexpected twists.
posted by cgs06 at 9:59 AM on December 20, 2011

Good lord. You need a lawyer. You do not know how to write a summary judgment motion. You do not want to be doing this without help. There should be some journalist legal resource for you. Call the ACLU first.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:26 AM on December 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Former clerk for a federal magistrate judge here.

If you don't think that the magistrate judge has any bias against you, then by all means consent. You'll probably get a much faster resolution of your case because (1) magistrate judges have much lighter dockets than district judges have and (2) consents are the only real opportunity for magistrate judges to work on interesting cases.

Allow me to explain. On the civil side, a magistrate judge does three things.

First, a magistrate judge rules on nondispositive motions referred to him by the district judge. These are usually boring discovery-related motions (e.g. motions for protective orders and motions to compel) that the district judge dumps on the magistrate judge because he wants to focus on more important matters. The rulings on these motions can be appealed to the district judge, but only on a "clearly erroneous or contrary to law" standard, which is almost impossible to met, meaning that the magistrate judge usually gets the final say on these often important (but usually terribly dull) pretrial rulings.

Second, a magistrate judge writes memoranda and recommendations (i.e. draft opinions that the district judge will accept or reject in part or whole). These are often in cases where (a) the topic is so dull or (b) the record so voluminous or (c) the litigants so annoying that the district judge doesn't want deal with it (e.g. social security appeals, pro se prisoner habeas litigation, a run-of-the-mill diversity case where the parties are carpet-bombing each other with filings, etc.) or (d) the correct ruling is so clear that the district judge doesn't want to waste his clerks' time banging out an opinion. Because these memoranda and recommendations can be dispositive, magistrate judges (and their clerks) enjoy working on these more---even though on rare occasions the district judge won't adopt them. Still, as with rulings on nondispositive discovery motions, these can be pretty boring.

Third, a magistrate judge can handle entire cases, both nondispositive and dispositive motions, as long as the parties consent. This is the best opportunity for a magistrate judge to work on an interesting case. It's also the only time a magistrate judge will have full control over the proceedings that follow---unlike many of his other cases, he's going to be familiar with it from start to finish. I can't speak for all magistrate judges, but of the three---which would you prefer spending most of your time on?: (1) ruling whether X corp has to give Y corp 1 million emails in a oil and gas contract dispute, (2) ruling whether a social security judge was clearly wrong in rejecting Aunt May's undocumented claims of fibromyalgia disability, or (3) ruling on a potentially interesting FOIA dispute from start to finish?

Yeah, I thought so too.

So, go ahead and consent. You may make that magistrate judge's clerk very happy and only slightly less jealous of his district and appellate clerk counterparts.
posted by saslett at 10:02 AM on December 23, 2011

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