Article III, Section 1:
The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.
The Supreme Court has held that Congress may create non-Article III forums where “adjuncts” to Article III courts adjudicate federal questions.1 An “adjunct” is an adjudicator—most commonly an administrative agency or a magistrate judge—that does not function as an independent court but instead acts as a subordinate to the federal courts. Adjuncts have become highly important in the modern era, handling many cases involving public benefits and assisting Article III judges with their heavy caseload.
Support for the adjunct theory can be traced to the 1932 case Crowell v. Benson.2 Crowell involved a challenge to the Longshoreman’s and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act, which required that claims for injuries sustained while working on the navigable waters of the United States be filed with the U.S. Employees’ Compensation Commission.3 That agency was to conduct fact-finding and make initial findings of law.4 An employer appealed an award of damages by the commission, claiming that the grant of jurisdiction to the commission violated Article III. In upholding the act, the Supreme Court delineated the proper role of the use of adjuncts in relation to Article III courts. The Court observed that “there is no requirement that, in order to maintain the essential attributes of the judicial power, all determinations of fact in constitutional courts shall be made by judges.” 5 Instead, an adjunct may make findings of fact and initial legal determinations, but questions of law must be subject to de novo review in an Article III court.6 Questions of jurisdictional fact—that is, facts that pertain to the jurisdiction of the agency itself—and constitutional fact are also subject to a more searching review by a constitutional court.7 In sum, Crowell instructs that for Article III courts to retain the “essential attributes of the judicial power,” adjuncts must act as subordinates to the Article III courts and not as independent adjudicators.
The framework established in Crowell provided the blueprint for the modern administrative state, starting with the New Deal and expanding throughout the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries.8 Administrative agencies perform a host of functions including making policy, promulgating rules, and adjudicating questions arising under federal law.9 Many disputes that come before federal agencies concern public rights cases, with a large share of cases concerning the right to various government entitlements. For instance, the Social Security Administration (SSA), a federal agency that administers various government benefits including old age and disability benefits, has a complex adjudication process for determining who is entitled to these benefits, including several tiers of administrative review and review by both a federal district court and a circuit court of appeal.10 Judicial review of SSA decisions closely follows the Crowell model: while factual findings made by an administrative law judge are subject to the highly deferential “substantial evidence” standard,11 legal determinations “receive no deference” from either the district court or court of appeals.12 While administrative law judges do not receive constitutionally protected life tenure or salary protection, there are statutory protections regarding their appointment, tenure, and compensation.
The second major subcategory of adjuncts is federal magistrate judges. In 1968, Congress enacted the Federal Magistrates Act, seeking to “reform the first echelon of the Federal judiciary into an effective component of a modern scheme of justice by establishing a system of U.S. magistrates.” 13 Magistrate judges are not appointed and confirmed like Article III judges and do not enjoy life tenure and salary protection. Instead, they are selected by district court judges and can be removed for good cause or if the Judicial Conference “determines that the services performed by his office are no longer needed.” 14 Initially, magistrate judges were assigned a somewhat circumscribed role but, over the last several decades, Congress has expanded the role of magistrate judges to include the power to decide various motions, hear evidence, and try both criminal and civil cases. With the ever-burgeoning federal docket, magistrate judges have been deemed “nothing less than indispensable” in the federal judicial process.15
The Supreme Court’s first occasion to consider the Magistrates Act came in Wingo v. Wedding.16 In that case, the Court addressed whether the act permitted magistrate judges to hold evidentiary hearings in habeas corpus proceedings without the defendant’s consent. The Court construed the statute to avoid potential Article III problems by interpreting the term “additional duties” in the act to not include the authority of a magistrate to hold evidentiary hearings, but instead allowing the magistrate simply to propose to the district court judge whether such a hearing should be held.17 Two years later in Mathews v. Weber, the Court was tasked with interpreting whether “additional duties” could be read to permit referral of Social Security benefit cases to magistrate judges for preliminary review of the administrative record and preparation of a recommended ruling.18 While the Court again avoided the potential Article III issues, it echoed the adjunct theory by observing that a district judge is free to follow or wholly reject a magistrate’s recommendation and that the “authority—and the responsibility—to make informed, final determination . . . remains with the judge.” 19 As a statutory matter, because the district judge was still free to follow or wholly ignore the magistrate’s recommendation, the Court upheld the magistrate’s “preliminary-review function” as one of the “additional duties” permitted under the act.20
In the 1980 case United States v. Raddatz, the Court finally addressed head-on the unresolved constitutional questions surrounding the Magistrates Act.21 In Raddatz, a defendant challenged magistrates’ statutory and constitutional authority to hear motions to suppress evidence in a criminal proceeding. Under the act, magistrate judges could “hear and determine” any pretrial matter before the court, except for certain motions including motions to suppress evidence in criminal cases.22 For those excluded motions, the district court judge could “designate a magistrate to conduct hearings, including evidentiary hearings, and to submit to a judge of the court proposed findings of fact and recommendations for the disposition” of the motions.23 If either party objected to the proposed findings or recommendations, the district court judge was then required to make a “de novo determination” of the issues and could “accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations of the magistrate.” 24 The defendant in Raddatz contended that these provisions required the district court judge to rehear the testimony on which the magistrate based his findings. The Court rejected that argument, holding that the district court need only make a de novo determination of the disputed findings and recommendations and not hold a de novo hearing.25 With respect to the Article III challenge, the Court upheld the act, observing that the “ultimate decision” is reserved for the district court judge and that magistrates “are constantly subject to the court’s control.” 26
Congress amended the Magistrates Act in 1979, further enlarging and clarifying magistrates’ authority.27 Under the new statute, upon designation by the district court judge and with consent of the parties, magistrate judges were authorized to preside over and enter final judgments in civil trials, including jury trials and misdemeanor criminal prosecutions.28
In Gomez v. United States, the Court addressed whether overseeing the selection of jurors in a felony criminal prosecution was among the “additional duties” envisioned in the act.29 The defendant in that case objected to the assignment of a magistrate judge both the before and after the magistrate judge selected the jury.30 The Court agreed, and held that the Magistrates Act did not permit such an assignment. Applying the constitutional avoidance doctrine,31 the Court focused on the statutory question of whether Congress would have intended magistrates to oversee this “critical stage of the criminal proceeding.” 32 Speaking for a unanimous Court, Justice John Paul Stevens noted that, while a literal reading of the additional duties provision would allow magistrates to oversee felony trials, the “carefully defined grant of authority to conduct trials of civil matters and of minor criminal cases should be construed as an implicit withholding of the authority to preside at a felony trial.” 33 Ultimately, the Court held that the “absence of a specific reference to jury selection in the statute, or, indeed, in the legislative history, persuades us that Congress did not intend the additional duties clause to embrace this function.” 34
- Subject to the limitations discussed below, Congress may assign matters to adjuncts even when one of the three historical exceptions allowing assignment of a matter to a non-Article III tribunal is not applicable.
- 285 U.S. 22 (1932).
- Id. at 36–37.
- Id. at 54.
- Id. at 51.
- Id. at 54–57.
- See Richard H. Fallon, Of Legislative Courts, Administrative Agencies, and Article III, 101 Harv. L. Rev. 915, 925 (1988).
- See Paul M. Bator, The Constitution as Architecture: Legislative and Administrative Courts Under Article III, 65 Ind. L. J. 233, 264 (1990).
- 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) ( “Any individual, after any final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security made after a hearing to which he was a party . . . may obtain a review of such decision by a civil action . . . brought in [a] district court of the United States. . . . The judgment of the court shall be final except that it shall be subject to review in the same manner as a judgment in other civil actions.” ); 28 U.S.C. § 1291 ( “The courts of appeals . . . shall have jurisdiction of appeals from all final decisions of the district courts of the United States.” ).
- 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) ( “The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.” ).
- See, e.g., Hickman v. Bowman, 803 F.2d 1377, 1380 (5th Cir. 1986); Foster v. Astrue, 548 F. Supp. 2d 667, 668 (E.D. Wis. 2008).
- Federal Magistrates Act, P.L. 90–578, 82 Stat. 1107; Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261 (quoting S. Rpt. 371, 90th Cong., 1st Sess., 8 (1967)).
- 28 U.S.C. § 631.
- Government of Virgin Islands v. Williams, 892 F.2d 305, 308 (3d Cir. 1989).
- 418 U.S. 461 (1974).
- Id. at 472.
- 423 U.S. 261, 271 (1975).
- Id. at 271.
- Id. at 271–72.
- 447 U.S. 667 (1980).
- See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A).
- Id. § 636(b)(1)(B).
- Raddatz, 447 U.S. at 676.
- Id. at 682–83.
- Federal Magistrate Act of 1979, P.L. 96–82, 93 Stat. 643.
- 93 Stat. 643, 643–46. For discussion of the role of party consent to non-Article III courts’ jurisdiction, see ArtIII.S1.9.9 Consent to Article I Court Jurisdiction.
- 490 U.S. 858 (1989).
- Id. at 860–61.
- For additional discussion of the constitutional avoidance doctrine, see ArtIII.S2.C1.10.1 Overview of Constitutional Avoidance Doctrine.
- Gomez, 490 U.S. at 873.
- Id. at 872.
- Id. at 875–76. Importantly, in Gomez, the defendant had not given consent to the magistrate to select the jury, illustrating the limits of the adjunct theory when consent is withheld.