What Is the Difference Between a Judge and a Magistrate?

Updated December 15, 2023
8 min read
What Is the Difference Between a Judge and a Magistrate?


Many people use the terms "judge" and "magistrate" interchangeably, which makes one believe they have the same role and responsibilities. The question is often asked: Is a magistrate the same as a judge? The most significant difference between a magistrate and a judge lies in how much power the position has.

So, what is the difference between a judge and a magistrate? Magistrates are typically lower-level officials who 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 who 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?

Thus, we see that the difference between a judge and a magistrate is very evident. District judges are judges who fulfill positions and handle cases at a higher level. The President selects a district judge, who is then approved by the Senate. Their names are recommended by senators, a hearing is held, and they vote to approve. 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 do so. State governors can also appoint a circuit court judge.

Once appointed, a circuit court judge handles:

  • Constitutional cases;

  • 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. For instance, the state of Connecticut has 20 geographical regions, 13 judicial districts, and 12 juvenile districts.

What Is a Magistrate?

If you're still wondering about the difference between a judge and a magistrate, let's explore the role of a magistrate. A judicial officer known as a magistrate operates within a particular district court, possessing less jurisdictional power compared to a judge serving on a circuit court.

To be a magistrate judge, you need:

  1. A law degree;

  2. To pass your state bar;

  3. To have experience as an attorney.

Magistrates' power is more limited in scope, which means 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 handles:

  • Arbitration for a case summary, but not a trial;

  • Contempt and enforcement actions.

To put it simply, in the difference between a magistrate and a judge, a magistrate has more constrained authority.

Magistrate definition

A part of the question, "What is the difference between a magistrate and a judge?" is that a magistrate is a judge. The full title is "magistrate judge." They obtain their positions through appointment or election, and hold jurisdiction in both local and state courts with the capability to oversee an array of cases, including criminal proceedings, civil disputes, and matters related to family law.

What does a magistrate do?

Now, if you're still wondering, what's the difference between a judge and a magistrate? understanding a magistrate's duties can provide further clarity. A magistrate serves for eight years at a time, and each state gives itself 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. Besides, they often handle disputes around the cases concerning the last will and testament. A district circuit court judge may nominate a magistrate to expedite the settlement of issues in family law cases, which would otherwise wait for the district's circuit court judge to become available. 

  • In civil cases, a magistrate judge is the person who handles divorce matters or family law cases in your local district.

  • The magistrate judge works with your attorney and listens to pretrial motions, pretrial 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 determines whether someone should be detained or released before trial.

Magistrate vs. Judge

The difference between a magistrate and a judge can indeed be perplexing. However, it is essential to note that the differences between these titles are primarily a formality. Those who hold the position of a Magistrate Judge 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, including the difference between judge and magistrate, may seem subtle, it is important to understand their different roles and responsibilities. 


The difference between a judge and a magistrate illustrates that both judges and magistrates serve essential roles in a courtroom. Knowing what's the difference between a magistrate and a judge will help you understand the roles and responsibilities of these crucial figures in a trial situation. 

Most importantly, if you are still unclear about who is who and what is the difference between magistrate and judge, you can always consult an attorney to see how a circuit court judge or a 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 found on the blog, guides, and other website pages. 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 i.chumachenko@lawrina.org or connect with her on LinkedIn.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a magistrate's definition?

A magistrate is generally defined as a civil officer or lay judge who administers the law, particularly minor criminal cases and preliminary hearings.


What roles do magistrates typically perform?

Typically, magistrates carry out tasks such as overseeing minor criminal cases, pre-trial hearings, issuing warrants, handling bail matters, and deciding small claims cases, among others. The duties of a magistrate may vary significantly depending on the specific legal jurisdiction.


What is the key difference between a magistrate and a judge?

The chief difference between a magistrate and a judge usually lies in their jurisdiction, the seriousness of the cases they handle, and the duration of their terms. Magistrates generally handle smaller cases and have shorter terms, while judges deal with more severe or complex legal cases and often serve longer terms.