What is the Difference Between a Judge and a Magistrate?

Many people use the terms “judge” and “magistrate” interchangeably and are, therefore, led to believe they have the same role and responsibilities. However, the most significant difference between a judge and a magistrate lies in how much power the position has.

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So, who has more power in the magistrate vs. judge fight? Magistrates are typically lower-level officials that handle minor legal matters, such as traffic violations and small claims cases. They may also have the authority to issue search warrants and arrest warrants.

On the other hand, judges are usually higher-level officials that preside over more complex legal matters, such as criminal trials and significant civil lawsuits. They have the power to rule on the admissibility of evidence, determine the guilt or innocence of a defendant, and impose sentences or fines.

What Is a Judge?

District judges are judges who fulfill positions and handle cases at a higher level. A district judge is nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Their names get recommended by senators, a hearing is held, and then they vote to confirm. 

In order to be a circuit court judge, you need:

  1. A law degree
  2. To pass your state bar
  3. To have experience as an attorney

Sometimes, people who want to move from being an attorney to a circuit court judge will run for office in local or state elections, but they are not required to. State Governors can also appoint a circuit court judge. 

Once appointed, a circuit court judge handles:

  1. Constitutional cases
  2. High-priority criminal cases

There can be multiple circuit court judges in one area if that area has multiple districts. Each circuit court judge only serves one specific district at a time. The state of Connecticut has 20 geographical regions, 13 judicial districts, and 12 juvenile districts. 

What Is a Magistrate?

A magistrate is a judicial officer appointed to a district court. This means they work in a specific district but have less authority than a circuit court judge. 

To be a magistrate judge, you need:

  1. A law degree
  2. To pass your state bar
  3. To have experience as an attorney

A magistrate’s power is more limited in scope, meaning they typically only work in one county, province, or region, as compared to a circuit court judge, who handles an entire district.

Once appointed a magistrate judge, they handle:

  1. Arbitration for a case summary, but not a trial
  2. Contempt and enforcement actions

Magistrate definition 

A magistrate is a judge. The full title is “Magistrate Judge.”  A Magistrate is a judicial officer who hears and decides on legal cases in a court of law. They are appointed or elected to serve in local or state courts and have the authority to preside over various cases, such as criminal, civil, and family law matters.

Magistrates ensure that legal procedures are followed during court proceedings and make impartial decisions based on the evidence presented. They can also issue warrants, set bail, and oversee the conduct of trials.

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In some jurisdictions, magistrates are also authorized to conduct preliminary hearings in criminal cases and may have the power to issue search and arrest warrants.

Overall, magistrates play a crucial role in the administration of justice and in ensuring that the legal rights of all individuals are protected.

What does a magistrate do?

A magistrate is a judge appointed by a committee. They are then responsible for all cases assigned by US statute and for items delegated by district judges. A magistrate serves for eight years at a time, and each state gives its actual duties so that they can vary.

Magistrates work heavily in family law to handle uncontested divorce, alimony, child support, child custody, and visitation mediation. A district circuit court judge will appoint a magistrate to help parties in family law cases settle their issues in court sooner than if they had to wait for the district’s circuit court judge. 

  • In civil cases, the Magistrate Judge is the person in family law cases or in your local district who handles divorce matters.
  • The Magistrate Judge works with your attorney and listens to pretrial motions, pre-trial conferences, settlements, and trials.
  • Where criminal cases are concerned, a Magistrate Judge has many responsibilities, including the initial free trial, where the defendant comes before the judge to hear their charges, any arraignments, and any pleas of guilty or not guilty. The Magistrate Judge is responsible for all misdemeanor and petty offense cases, and it is the Magistrate Judge who determines whether someone should be detained or released before their trial.

Magistrate vs. Judge

Some readers may find the nuances of the terms “judge,” “Magistrate Judge,” and “Circuit Court judge” perplexing. However, it is essential to note that these titles’ differences are primarily a formality.

While “judge” is a more informal term that can refer to a wide range of judicial officers, “Magistrate Judge” is a specific position defined by state law.

Those who hold this position have limited jurisdiction and typically handle less severe cases, such as minor civil disputes and misdemeanors.

Above Magistrate Judges are the Circuit Court judges, who hold more expansive powers and preside over more significant cases such as felony trials and appeals. 

Thus, while the distinction between these titles may seem subtle, it is important to understand their different roles and responsibilities and see the difference between magistrate vs. judge.


Overall, judges and magistrates serve essential roles in a courtroom. Find yourself in any type of legal battle. Understanding the distinction between the two will help you determine what actions they are responsible for and whether you will have to work with them in a trial situation. 

If you are still unclear about who is who in the magistrate vs. judge battle, you can always reach out to an attorney to see how a circuit court judge or magistrate judge might be involved in your case.

Article by Inna Chumachenko

Inna Chumachenko is the Content Lead at Lawrina. She is responsible for managing all the content that can be found on the blog, guides, and other pages of the website. Inna has a degree in philology and a vast interest in law. In her role at Lawrina, Inna oversees the content team, establishes collaborations with writers, and curates content from various contributors.

If you have any questions or suggestions regarding the content for Lawrina, please feel free to contact Inna directly via email at [email protected] or connect with her on LinkedIn.

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