Over the last three decades, growing caseloads and finite resources have fostered expansion of the jurisdiction, responsibilities, prestige and compensation of United States Magistrate Judges. Passage of the Civil Justice Reform Act (CJRA) of 1990, which required local experimentation with procedures for reducing expense and delay in civil litigation, propelled this development in many of the ninety-four federal districts across the country. The United States District Court for the District of Montana has quite strongly evidenced these phenomena. Perhaps most important, the CJRA expense and delay reduction plan that the district prescribed in 1991 included an opt-out procedure which it intended would secure a larger number of consents to magistrate judge jurisdiction in civil cases. That procedure's adoption, related developments, such as the need for the district's Article III judges to devote considerable resources to resolving their criminal dockets, and the perception that the magistrate judges concomitantly resolve civil cases as efficiently, fairly and expeditiously as the Article III judges have led many lawyers and parties in the Montana District to view magistrate judges as similar to Article III judges for the purpose of civil dispute resolution.

The factors mentioned above, the increasingly complex nature of criminal and civil caseloads, the steadily expanding character of civil dockets in the United States and the Montana District, and the need to find innovative ways of resolving these disputes with limited resources mean that the office of magistrate judge in the country and in the Montana District warrants analysis. This essay undertakes that effort. The piece initially examines the origins and development of the office of magistrate judge nationally and in the Montana Federal District Court, emphasizing the recent expansion of magistrate judges' roles and responsibilities. The paper concludes with suggestions for the future.

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