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U.S. v. KHAN

October 4, 1991

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
GULZAR KHAN, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Korman, District Judge.

MEMORANDUM

The enactment and successive broadening of the Federal Magistrates Act (the "Act"), now comprising 28 U.S.C. § 631-39, 604, 1915 and 18 U.S.C. § 3401-3402, 3060, reflects the ongoing efforts of Congress to enlarge the role of the United States magistrate judge "to the end that the district court judge could have more time to preside at the trial of cases." H.R.Rep. No. 1609, 94th Cong., 2d Sess. 6, reprinted in U.S.Code Cong. & Admin.News 6162, 6166 (1976). The question here presented is whether, within the confines of Article III restrictions and within the bounds of a fair reading of the Act, the taking of a guilty plea may be placed within the panoply of duties properly discharged by a United States magistrate judge.

The issue is of particular consequence because of the rapidly exploding criminal case load and because taking a guilty plea is a time consuming exercise. In the first eight months of this year 1,254 defendants were charged by indictment or information in the Eastern District of New York. At this pace almost 1700 defendants will be charged this year. Of these, 1,400 defendants are likely to plead guilty in a proceeding that takes anywhere from twenty to forty-five minutes.*fn1

Aside from the time it takes from an equally burgeoning trial calendar, it is frequently necessary to interrupt a trial or shorten a trial day in order to accommodate defendants who desire to plead guilty. Indeed, this is precisely the circumstance that gave rise to the assignment in this case. On July 11, 1991, the defendant's pretrial motion to withdraw his previously entered plea of guilty was scheduled to be heard. Because the allocution pursuant to Fed.R.Crim.P. 11 would have interrupted a lengthy ongoing criminal trial, the defendant and the United States Attorney consented to allowing Chief Magistrate Judge Chrein to conduct the allocution.

The reference to the Chief Magistrate was conditioned on my subsequent review of the transcript of the proceedings to ensure that the plea was knowingly and voluntarily made and that it had been taken in compliance with Fed.R.Crim.P. 11. Of course, pursuant to Fed.R.Crim.P. 32(d), which permits a defendant to withdraw a guilty plea prior to sentence "upon a showing by the defendant of any fair or just reason," a defendant could obtain such review of the plea allocution as a matter of right. Moreover, although the United States Attorney does not enjoy such a comparable formal vehicle for correcting a deficiency in the plea prior to sentencing, there is no rule that precludes him from asking a district judge to cure any error in the plea allocution prior to sentence.

While the United States Attorney agreed to the reference here, he has declined in subsequent cases to consent to the referral of the defendant's motion to plead guilty to a United States magistrate judge. Citing certain unarticulated concerns regarding the issue whether such a reference may be properly be made, he fears that guilty pleas referred to United States magistrate judges will be subject to subsequent challenge. Accordingly, although the United States Attorney does not object to the entry of a judgment of conviction here, I have undertaken to address the issues whether a defendant's pretrial application to enter a guilty plea may be referred to a United States magistrate judge and whether the consent of the United States Attorney is required for such a referral.

DISCUSSION

In 1968, Congress first replaced the former office of the United States commissioner with the newly formed federal magistrates system. Federal Magistrates Act of 1968, Pub.L. No. 90-578, 82 Stat. 1107, codified as amended at 18 U.S.C. § 3401-3402; 28 U.S.C. § 631-39 (1988). Congress conferred on magistrates not only all powers formerly exercised by commissioners, it also conferred on magistrates the power to try minor offenses when all parties consent, and to perform such additional duties assigned by the district court as are "not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(3). The "additional duties" could include, but were not restricted to

    (1) service as a special master in an
  appropriate civil action, pursuant to the
  applicable provisions of this title and the
  Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for the United
  States district courts;
    (2) assistance to a district judge in the
  conduct of pretrial or discovery proceedings in
  civil or criminal actions; and
    (3) preliminary review of applications for
  post-trial relief made by individuals convicted of
  criminal offenses, and submission of a report and
  recommendations to facilitate the decision of the
  district judge having jurisdiction over the case
  as to whether there should be a hearing.

28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and (2).

The enactment of former Section 636(b) reflected the intent of Congress to enlarge significantly — indeed, dramatically — the function of the judicial officers serving directly below the level of the district court so as to ease the latter's overwhelming caseload. In particular, Congress sought to permit the district judges "to devote more of their time to dispositive adjudications." United States v. Diaz, 922 F.2d 998, 1004 (2d Cir. 1990). Congress also intended to raise the standards of the judicial officers serving as magistrate judges. See United States v. Raddatz, 447 U.S. 667, 685-86, 100 S.Ct. 2406, 2417, 65 L.Ed.2d 424 (1980) (Blackmun, J., concurring) ("It is also significant that the Magistrates Act imposes significant requirements to ensure competency and impartiality, including a rule generally barring reduction of salaries of full-time magistrates.") (citations omitted).

The experience under former section 636(b) demonstrated that magistrates were fulfilling their intended function of assisting "the district judge to the end that the district court judge could have more time to preside at the trial of cases," H.R.Rep. No. 1609, 94th Cong., 2d Sess. 6, reprinted in 1976 U.S.Code Cong. & Admin.News 6166. Congress was disturbed, however, by a series of cases that construed former Section 636 in a manner that limited the "additional duties" that could be conferred on magistrates. See e.g. Wingo v. Wedding, 418 U.S. 461, 94 S.Ct. 2842, 41 L.Ed.2d 879 (1975); TPO v. McMillan, 460 F.2d 348 (7th Cir. 1972); Ingram v. Richardson, 471 F.2d 1268 (6th Cir. 1972). Accordingly, former Section 636(b) was rewritten in 1976 to restate and clarify "the Congressional intention that the magistrate should be a judicial officer who, not only in his own right but also under general supervision of the court, shall serve as an officer of the court in disposing of minor and petty criminal offenses, in the preliminary or pre-trial processing of both criminal and civil cases, and in hearing dispositive motions and evidentiary hearings when assigned to the magistrate by a judge of the court." H.R.Rep. No. 1609, 94th Cong., 2d Sess. 5, reprinted in 1976 U.S.Code Cong. & Admin.News 6165.

Section 636(b), as amended in 1976, authorized district court judges to delegate judicial duties to magistrates under four separate lines of authority set forth in 28 U.S.C. § 636(b), of which three merit discussion here. First, it authorized a judge to designate a magistrate to "hear and determine any pretrial matter pending before the court," except for eight enumerated classes of motions that are viewed as effectively dispositive of the case. Id. at § 636(b)(1)(A) (emphasis supplied). Second, a district judge is authorized to designate a magistrate "to conduct hearings, including evidentiary hearings, and to submit . . . proposed findings of fact and recommendations for the disposition by a judge of the court," of any of the eight categories of excepted dispositive motions and of "applications for post-trial relief made by individuals convicted of criminal offenses and prisoner petitions." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). Third, in addition to the specifically enumerated duties set forth in section 636, a district court judge is authorized to refer to a magistrate any "additional duties as are not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(3). The Senate Judiciary Committee's report emphasized the expansive nature of this "catch-all" provision.

  A similar provision is contained in the existing
  legislation. This subsection enables the district
  courts to continue innovative experimentations in
  the use of this judicial officer. At the same
  time, placing this authorization in an entirely
  separate subsection emphasizes that it is not
  restricted in any way by any other specific grant
  of authority to magistrates.
  If district judges are willing to experiment with
  the assignment to magistrates of other functions
  in aid of the business of the courts, there will
  be increased time available to judges for the
  careful and unhurried performance of their vital
  and traditional adjudicatory duties, and a
  consequent ...

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