What Is the Difference Between a Judge and a Magistrate?

The family law attorneys at Rodier Family Law explain the difference between a circuit court judge and a magistrate.

The words judge and magistrate are often used interchangeably in legal terms, and there is a common misconception that they represent the same person. However, judges and magistrates have different roles and responsibilities within the legal system. The main difference between these positions is how much power they can exercise, but there are more diminutive details that can help distinguish the two.

In order to be named a circuit court judge, you must meet a list of particular criteria, which includes receiving a law degree, passing a state assessed bar exam and acquiring experience as a practicing attorney. Additionally, attorneys wishing to become a circuit court judge can run for office in state elections and be elected by civilian voters, but they aren’t affiliated with political parties.  A judge can also be appointed by a state’s governor.

Circuit court judges are credited to have more powers than a magistrate and oversee more complicated matters such as criminal cases, high-priority cases and constitutional cases at the federal, state or county level. Multiple circuit court judges can be elected to serve in a district, but they serve in only one specific district in the state (Maryland is divided into 12 geographical districts).

In regards to duties, the role of the judge is to preside over trials and ensure that all parties follow procedure. Additionally, they are responsible for leading a court case and helping clarify the discrepancies of the law for a jury. Upon election, circuit court judges serve a six-year term, and after its completion, they have the option to run again.

Although magistrates also need a law degree an experience as an attorney to achieve their status, they are appointed to their position by a circuit court judge. They have less authority than judges, and the scope of their power is more comparable to that of an administrator.

Their jurisdiction is more limited and can cover only a region, district, province or county. The role of the magistrate is to arbitrate in the case summary of a trial, and they do not work with a jury. Other matters decided by the Court can be heard by the magistrate, which may include contempt and enforcement actions. Unlike judges, full-time magistrates serve for eight years, and part-time magistrates serve for four years.

In regard to family law, magistrates are selected by a district’s circuit court judge to hear cases such as uncontested divorce, alimony pendente lite, child support pendente lite and child custody or visitation mediation. Utilizing the services of a magistrate allows the parties in family law cases to get to court faster than if they had to wait for a judge. Additionally, the exceptions process allows couples to have their case decided by a judge in the event the parties don’t agree with the magistrate’s decision.

Judges and magistrates both serve important roles in the court of law, but it is important to make the distinction between the two so that if you ever find yourself involved in a court case, you can gain a better understanding of what to expect from each.

For more information on the difference between a judge and a magistrate and how it affects your particular circumstances, or your individual family law needs, please contact the family law attorneys at Rodier Family Law.


The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide about the subject matter. A licensed Maryland attorney should be sought about your specific circumstances.