In both the United States and Australia, the only way to become a magistrate judge is to first become an ordinary judge, usually at the state or local trial court level, then be appointed to the magistrate position by an official committee. Becoming a judge is no small feat. It typically requires a law degree and several years of law practice experience. If you are in the United Kingdom, however, you can become a magistrate judge much more easily. There, all a person must do is volunteer and pass a basic screening — no legal training of any kind is required.
The role of magistrate judges varies quite significantly from country to country. In the United States, magistrate judges are essentially junior-level, more temporary district court judges. The U.S magistrate judge system came into being in the mid-1960s as a means of alleviating some of the caseload pressures facing the federal district courts. Federal district court judges are appointed for life by the president. A magistrate judge, on the other hand, is selected by a panel of district court judges and is elected to an eight-year term.
In order to become a magistrate judge under this system, you must usually already be a judge in a nearby court. Most of the judges who are nominated to become magistrates preside over state trial courts or superior courts. It is sometimes possible to self-nominate for magistrate election, but more often nominations are strictly internal. The best thing to do if you want to become a magistrate judge in the U.S. is to network with district court judges and make your aspirations known.
Australian magistrate judges are selected by a wholly different process. In Australia, the Federal Magistrates Court is a court that handles almost exclusively family law matters. A magistrate judge in this setting is simply a judge whose home is the Magistrates Court. These judges are all appointed by the Chief Federal Magistrate.
As in the U.S., there is no sure way to secure this appointment. Much of what it takes to become a magistrate judge in Australia is experience with family law, a good track record as a judge, and a solid reputation within the court system. Connections to the Chief Federal Magistrate always help, as well.
The English magistrate judge system, in comparison, is something of an anomaly. In the U.K., magistrate judges are essentially community volunteers who, after a lengthy training process, are authorized to hear and render judgment in a wide variety of so-called “minor” cases. Magistrates can issue fines and can sentence offenders to up to six months in prison. Public drunkenness, petty theft, and some drug infractions come before magistrates. More serious crimes, as well as any crime worthy of more than six months’ incarceration, must be referred to a Crown Court judge.
Crown Court judges resemble most of the judges in the U.S., Australia, and elsewhere. A U.K. magistrate, however, is largely a characterization unto itself. In the U.K., any person, regardless of background and training, can volunteer to become a magistrate judge. Magistrates must be willing to take off periodic half-days from their jobs in order to attend and preside over hearings. U.K. law requires employers to grant employees leave for magistrate work, and most employers offer paid leave.