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Despite the fancy name, a magistrate is at the bottom of the judicial pecking order. Magistrate courts only handle limited matters and in some states are called small claims court. Both the federal and many state judicial systems include magistrates, but each judicial system sets its own qualifications for the position. Qualifications for state magistrates are less stringent than for federal magistrates.
In federal court, magistrates assist district judges. Handling pretrial matters, discovery and post-trial relief are part of their duties. These judges also hear some civil and misdemeanor criminal trials, along with habeus corpus petitions, which are requests for a new trial because new evidence may indicate that a convicted criminal might be innocent.
Even though magistrate court is the lowest court in the federal system, magistrate judges earned an average annual salary of $160,080 in 2013, according to the Judicial Conference of the United States. District judges appoint magistrate judges. The minimum qualifications are a law degree, five years of experience in the practice of law, good moral character, and judicial temperament. The appointee must be under age 70 and may not be related to any of the judges who make the appointment. These are just minimum requirements; the average appointee actually has more than 20 years' experience in the practice of law.
In the state judicial system, magistrates handle small civil and criminal matters, such as landlord-tenant disputes, preliminary hearings, misdemeanor offenses or traffic violations. Magistrates are either appointed or elected, according to the law of the state in which they serve. Typically, magistrates serve small geographical areas, such as a city, county or district.
Each state sets its own minimum requirements for magistrates. The level of education required varies from no educational requirement to a law degree -- and everything in between. States that require a law degree may also require that the magistrate be a practicing attorney for a specified number of years. Other states require that magistrates pass a test after appointment to ensure adequate legal knowledge. Continuing education requirements for state magistrate judges are also common. Other minimum requirements might include residency, age or moral fitness.