For decades the Supreme Court has balanced the tension between judicial efficiency and adherence to our constitutional system of separation of powers. As more cases were filed in federal courts, Congress increased the responsibilities and power given to magistrate judges. The result is magistrate judges wielding as much power as district judges. With post-conviction relief under § 2255, magistrate judges take on a whole new role— appellate judge—reviewing and potentially overturning sentences imposed by district judges.
This practice raises two concerns. First, did Congress intend to statutorily give magistrate judges this power? The prevailing interpretation is that § 2255 motions are civil, not criminal, proceedings able to be disposed of by magistrates. Still, at least one circuit court has disagreed, holding that § 2255 motions are criminal proceedings, incapable of magistrate disposition. Second, even if magistrate judges have statutory jurisdiction to decide § 2255 motions, does the practice violate separation of powers? When magistrate judges determine the validity of district judge-imposed sentences, non-Article III judges are given final say on whether an Article III judge sentenced an individual correctly.
This Note argues magistrate judge disposition of § 2255 motions is statutorily and constitutionally impermissible. It recommends that Congress limit magistrate judge power in § 2255 motions to issuing reports and recommendations, reviewed by district court judges. This recommendation achieves the twin aims of judicial efficiency and constitutionality, protecting the Judiciary, and the People, from intra-branch encroachment.