Q: I was told that my case would be heard by a magistrate instead of a judge. What, exactly, is a magistrate?
A: A magistrate is an attorney licensed in Ohio, who is appointed by the court to conduct some or all hearings in a case. A magistrate also may conduct trials and decide cases. However, a magistrate’s decision becomes the court’s judgment only after it has been adopted by the judge.
Q: Can a magistrate hear any kind of case?
A: Various procedural rules specify what types of cases or hearings a magistrate may conduct. For instance, the Rules of Criminal Procedure allow a magistrate to determine guilt only in misdemeanor cases and then only by the parties’ unanimous consent if imprisonment is a possible penalty. The Ohio Traffic Rules and the Rules of Civil, Criminal, Juvenile, and Appellate Procedure outline what cases a magistrate may hear. Magistrates routinely conduct hearings in and preside over civil, criminal, traffic, domestic relations, probate, and juvenile cases. Magistrates also may be appointed in some appellate cases.
Q: Who decides what cases are heard by a magistrate instead of a judge?
A: A judge or judges of a court determine what case or cases are referred to a magistrate. This is done by an “order of reference.” An order of reference may be very general and relate to a wide class of cases or it may relate only to a particular case or hearing. Sometimes the order of reference is contained in the court’s local rules. A case usually can be referred to a magistrate without the consent of the parties, except that the parties’ unanimous consent is required before a magistrate may conduct a jury trial.
Q: What are the powers of a magistrate?
A: Subject to procedural rules and order of reference, a magistrate has the authority to regulate the proceedings as a judge would. This includes the power to issue subpoenas, rule upon the admissibility of evidence, take testimony, and make a contempt finding when a person behaves improperly in court or does not abide by the court’s orders.
Q: Can a magistrate make a final judgment in a case?
A: No; only a judge can render a final judgment in a case. However, magistrates can issue orders and decisions. An order generally relates to matters that regulate the proceedings, such as continuances, deposition orders, conditions of bond, and temporary spousal support. Magistrates’ orders generally are effective without a judge’s approval.
In addition to issuing orders, a magistrate also can decide issues such as the guilt of a defendant, custody of a child, or liability in a civil case. However, the magistrate’s decision is not effective unless and until it is adopted by the court. In that respect, the magistrate’s decision is like a recommendation.
Q: What if I disagree with the magistrate’s decision or order?
A: If you disagree with a magistrate's order, you may file a motion to set aside the order, but your filing does not “stay” or suspend the magistrate’s order. However, if you disagree with a magistrate's decision and file a written objection, your action “stays” or suspends the magistrate’s decision until the court reviews the decision. In some cases, the judge may make interim orders regarding the case until the judge rules on your objection.
Q: What are some of the differences between a judge and a magistrate?
A: Judges are elected to serve on the court for a set term, while magistrates are appointed by and serve at the pleasure of the judge. The law sets the amount a judge earns, while the judge determines the magistrate’s fee or salary. Like judges, magistrates must follow the code of ethical standards and other rules set by the Supreme Court of Ohio that regulate the judiciary. As of June 2013, 816 magistrates were registered with the Supreme Court of Ohio. Further information about magistrates is available through the Ohio Association of Magistrates’ website at www.ohiomagistrates.org.
This Law You Can Use legal information article was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association. It was originally prepared by Leah A. Dugan, executive director of human resources for the Hamilton County Juvenile Court in Cincinnati. It was updated by Thomas J. Freeman, a magistrate for the Summit County Juvenile Court in Akron.