When you're dealing with a legal case, there's a chance that your case will be heard by a magistrate instead of a judge. As a general rule, a magistrate presides over legal cases that are of lesser importance. In some cases, they're appointed by elected officials such as judges or Supreme Court justices. The path to becoming a magistrate varies by state.
What They Do
While they don't preside over murder cases or other serious criminal matters, magistrates still make decisions on public or private matters. Their list of duties might include issuing arrest warrants, setting dates for a trial before a judge, issuing child support orders or performing court marriage ceremonies. In a small or rural court system, magistrates might also manage the court budget and clerical employees. This job often requires strong judgment, clerical and bookkeeping skills as well as good reading, listening and speaking skills.
The educational requirements for this job can vary widely depending on where you want to work. For rural areas in Alaska, for example, magistrates are only required to be citizens of the United States, at least 21 years old and residents of the state. To get a magistrate's job serving the state of Colorado, on the other hand, the minimum educational requirement is a law degree, which requires you to have a four-year undergraduate degree before attending law school. When a legal degree is a requirement, you'll typically be required to be a member of the state bar association. With so many varying requirements, your best course of action is to check with the state or county in which you live -- or where you want to work -- to find out more about the minimum educational requirements.
Even if you've determined that you have the minimum educational requirements for the job, you'll probably have other hoops to jump through to become a magistrate. In some states, you'll take a screening exam that tests your legal knowledge and judgment. You may also be required to have a certain number of years of on-the-job legal experience. In places where magistrates are appointed or chosen by higher-ranking judges, those judges may only choose people they know to be professionals who are prominent in their fields. In other words, working in the legal profession may put you in contact with the people you'll need to know to get a magistrate appointment.
Salary and Advancement
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, judges, magistrate judges and magistrates earned a median wage of $118,150 per year as of May 2013. That figure includes elected or appointed judges, who hold a higher rank than magistrates and also tend to earn a lot more. According to BLS, people on the low end of the pay scale earned $31,960 per year or less as of May 2013, while the people on the highest end earned $171,180 or more. Advancing in this career may depend on your background. If you have a law degree, you might advance to become an elected judge at better pay, which could eventually lead to working on a district court or higher.