Judges and Magistrates: What’s The Difference?
For many people the terms judge and magistrate are thought to mean the same thing. This is by no means correct. While it is true both terms denote jurisdictional functions, there are a variety of differences between a judge and a magistrate including how they arrive at their title, how long they will hold the title and what functions they are expected to perform once they accept their respective position. There are both state and federal judges and magistrates, all of which handle a variety of cases, depending on their title and, in the case of state appointments or elections, on the expectations of any particular state.
In brief terms, as defined by the online, legal library, a judge is “A public official with authority to hear cases in a court of law and pronounce a judgment upon them.” A magistrate is “Any individual who has the power of a public civil officer or inferior judicial office such as a Justice of the Peace” These definitions are simplistic when actually looking at what a judge, and particularly a magistrate are able to do in the area of law, both civil and criminal. For the purposes of this blog, the use of a judge and/or magistrate in the state of Florida Family Courts will be explored.
Looking first at Florida magistrates in Civil Family law, they are usually appointed by a judge for a period of eight years for full time or four years for part time. As the dockets of Family Court judges are full with a long waiting period for cases to be heard, most importantly magistrates are used to help reduce the caseload in matters such as temporary needs hearings involving alimony, child support, and use of a home during litigation. However, both parties in an action must agree to have their motion heard by a magistrate and have 10 days to state their objection following the appointment of a magistrate to hear their temporary needs case. After listening to the case, a magistrate will make a ruling based on the evidence presented. This ruling will be made into a report and given to a judge for review before a final court order is adjudicated. A report will be made and sent to each party before the final decree and if either party objects, they have ten days to file an objection. They will then have to wait until the judge can place their motion on his or her docket, which, in Florida, can by months. Another way magistrates help the Florida Family Court is by monitoring cases where one party represents themselves, not using an attorney. This helps ensure such documents as a financial disclosure are properly prepared and filed, thus moving the case along.
In Florida judges’ terms begin on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in January. Circuit Court and County Court judges, the ones who will normally preside over Family Law cases are elected by nonpartisan elections to serve for six years. After the six years the judge must run for reelection if he or she wants to keep their seat. To serve as circuit or county judge a person must have been an active attorney in the state of Florida for five years. However, if a county has less than 40,000 residents, the requirement to have had an in-state law practice can be waived all together. A county can also choose to use a merit selection process to select their judges.
Judges have authorized power to make decisions affecting people’s lives. The major responsibilities are to hear and review evidence written, visual, and verbal, to hear testimony, to impartially consider all facts, and then to make a decision based on the applicable laws concerning the case. At no time should a judge’s conduct be immoral or unethical. Although not spelled out in the law as such, a judge should be a role model for the people whose lives he or she has jurisdiction over. This is especially true in Family Court where the very essence of family life is challenged and hopefully adjudicated in the best interests of children, their parents and the institution of marriage.
So it can be seen that indeed, while both a judge and a magistrate have an important role to play in serving justice, their power to make decisions, and their duties and responsibilities are different.