“Tell it to the judge”: You may have heard this refrain in any number of contexts—as a taunt, jibe, joke… or maybe even as a serious statement by someone whom you expect to sue you.
You may take it for granted that if you participate in a court case as a plaintiff or a defendant, your matter will eventually be heard by a serious-looking individual garbed in a black court robe, who answers to the title “Judge.” This is, in fact, often the case. But just as coaches have different titles (manager, assistant manager, coach, etc.), there are many different types of judges who preside in one fashion or another over court cases. Sometimes, more than one judge may be involved in your court case.
Not all of these judges have the same responsibilities and job descriptions, so you might find it confusing if you hear your lawyer refer to one or another in an offhand fashion as though ticking through a laundry list. Here’s a quick breakdown that you may find helpful if you encounter one or more of kinds types of judges during the course of a legal dispute.
Magistrate Judges and U.S. District Court Judges
If you are a plaintiff or a defendant in a case pending in federal court, you are likely to hear your lawyer refer separately to the “magistrate judge” and the “district court judge” who have been assigned to your case. How can two judges both have a say in your case? Do they have to share space on the bench in open court, and share desk space back at their office?
Fortunately for you, and the general public, magistrate judges and United States district judges do not operate akin to Will Ferrell’s and John C. Reilly’s characters from the film Step Brothers. Simply put, magistrate judges are entrusted with the responsibility of adjudicating discovery disputes between the parties during the course of a federal civil case. In federal criminal cases, magistrates can preside over misdemeanor matters.
A discovery dispute can arise when the two parties disagree about what documents or information are relevant to the pending litigation between the parties, and consequently which documents and information can lawfully be “discovered” by the opposing party via the issuance of interrogatories, requests for admission, and document requests (together known as “discovery requests”). A discovery dispute can center on whether a party can pose discovery requests to you about a certain category of information (or documents) in the first instance, or regarding the format of the response requested by the requesting party (e.g., hard copy vs. electronic format). Once a magistrate judge rules on a discovery dispute, the losing party (the side that lost the argument) has the right to appeal the magistrate’s ruling to the U.S. district judge within 14 days of the ruling. In this regard, district judges essentially oversee the efforts of magistrates, but otherwise magistrate judges conduct hearings and go about their day-to-day business without oversight from district judges.
District judges typically have sole authority for deciding dispositive motions, i.e., motions that could end or resolve the case in one or the other party’s favor. The exception here is that a district judge can ask a magistrate judge to issue what is known as a “report and recommendation” on a dispositive motion. When the U.S. district judge does this, they are requesting the magistrate to review the parties’ briefs and issue a provisional opinion concerning which party should prevail on the substantive issues presented. Similar to discovery disputes, parties have 14 days to file objections to a report and recommendation issued by the magistrate judge on a dispositive issue.
In both state court and federal court, if your case does not settle and is resolved either at trial or by the trial court judge on a dispositive motion, you then have the right to appeal an adverse decision by the trial judge. The deadline for filing your appeal will vary depending on the jurisdiction in which your case is pending. Your appeal will then be heard by a panel of judges known as “appellate judges.” These judges do not hear cases on a daily basis (as trial judges do), and are instead brought into the loop only to review decisions on a secondary basis once the case has resolved.
However, there are rare instances in which appellate judges can hear discrete issues on an appellate basis prior to the entire case being resolved in the trial court. Appellate judges will frequently hear “oral argument” on an appeal, which consists of the attorneys from both sides augmenting their written briefs with a 15- to 20-minute oral presentation of their key written appellate briefing points. An appellate panel that has numerous questions for both parties is known as a “hot bench,” whereas one that does not interject with as many questions is known as a “cold bench.”
A justice can be a state Supreme Court or federal Supreme Court Justice. This is truly a “rare bird” among judges; once a case has been appealed to the Supreme Court, there is no higher legal authority, and the parties have to accept any decision rendered by the Supreme Court.
The U.S. Supreme Court, and most state supreme courts, have discretion over whether to hear an appeal after it has been ruled upon by the preceding (intermediate) appellate panel. Thus, if you hear your adversary say, “I’ll take this case to the Supreme Court” after receiving an adverse resolution at the trial court level, know that it is in fact a rarity for the Supreme Court to elect, at its discretion, to hear an appeal.
A senior judge is a trial judge who has taken on “senior status.” As befitting the title, this means that the judge is advanced in age. These judges bring a wealth of experience to their task but have a reduced caseload. All the same rules of practice and procedure apply in cases heard by senior judges.
A referee is a person, typically an attorney, to whom a judge refers a matter to issue a report and recommendation. The referee functions in a fashion similar to that of magistrate judges when the latter issues a report and recommendation. As with a magistrate's report and recommendation, a party aggrieved by a referee’s report and recommendation (such as in a paternity case) will have a limited period during which to lodge objections to the referee’s report and recommendation.
Administrative Law Judges
An administrative law judge (ALJ) is a judge who hears state or federal administrative cases typically involving an executive agency (such as the U.S. Department of Labor). ALJs can conduct hearings and gather evidence, and render binding decisions on the subject matter within the state or federal agency’s purview, though their decisions can usually be appealed within the agency and ultimately in state or federal court.
If you file an unemployment claim with a state unemployment agency after being terminated from a job, and the employer contends that you are ineligible for benefits on some ground (such as your alleged misconduct), an agency-appointed ALJ is likely to hear your claim and render a decision on it.
An arbitrator is a private professional—typically, either a private attorney or a former judge—who is responsible for issuing a binding ruling on your case. An arbitrator can either be a single person or part of an arbitral panel, which usually consists of three arbitrators.
A case is most frequently referred to arbitration if the litigants are both parties to a contract (entered into prior to the maturation of the business dispute), and the contract contains a clause mandating arbitration in the event of a dispute between the parties. One of the advantages of arbitration is that it can be a streamlined and timelier process compared to federal or state court litigation.
Judge Advocate General
A Judge Advocate General (JAG) is a military attorney. JAG attorneys practice military law—e.g., government contracting, administrative law or international relations—within the military and as employees of one of the branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. JAGs may offer legal advice to senior non-lawyer military officials, and they may also serve as prosecutors or defense attorneys for the military during court-martial proceedings.
A mediator is not actually a judge, per se. A mediator is a person who the parties agree to hear aspects of their dispute, typically during the course of half a day or an entire day. The mediator is not entrusted with rendering a formal ruling on your case; although they can give informal opinions on the case in discussing it with both the attorneys and the parties, nothing that the mediator says or does during the course of a mediation becomes binding on the parties if the case does not settle. The mediator’s purpose is to encourage settlement and to attempt to encourage each party to consider the opposing party’s point of view on the legal questions presented. Many mediators are former judges.
The above information is neither legal advice nor a substitute for reference to applicable state and federal law, and instead provides general information.