What is the Difference Between a Judge and a Magistrate?

If you have gone to court or you have an upcoming hearing and suddenly see the word magistrate, you might wonder what that really means.

Difference between a Judge and a Magistrate

Most people use the terms judge and magistrate interchangeably, so they believe that they always have the same role with the same responsibilities. However, this is untrue. The biggest difference lies in how much power an individual has.

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
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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 areas, 13 judicial districts, and 12 juvenile districts. 

Who 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. 

Then there are also magistrate judges.

What is a magistrate?

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

In order 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. In fact, the full title is “Magistrate Judge.” 

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What does a magistrate do?

A Magistrate Judge is appointed by a committee. They are then responsible for all cases assigned by US statute and they are responsible for items delegated by district judges. A magistrate serves for eight years at a time, and their actual duties are assigned by each state, so 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 handlesdivorce 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 of the same 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 cases and petty offense cases, and it is the Magistrate Judge who determines whether someone should be detained or released prior to their trial.

Magistrate vs judge

This might be confusing because most people have an idea about what a judge is to some degree. However, the difference between these two is really just the full title. In fact, “judge” is a more informal title for those who, according to state law, fulfill the position of “Magistrate Judge.” Above them are the Circuit Court judges.


Overall, judges and magistrates serve important roles in a courtroom. If you 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, 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 Megan Thompson

Megan Thompson is a legal writer at Lawrina. Megan writes about different law practice areas, legal innovations, and shares her knowledge about her legal practice. As a graduate of the American University's Washington College of Law she is an expert of law in Lawrina's team and has a slight editing touch to all content that is published on the website.

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