Who Decides?: Civil Consent Jurisdiction of U.S. Magistrate Judges and Third-Party Intervention

By Eric Lim

The Federal Magistrates Act permits a U.S. magistrate judge to preside over and enter final judgment in a civil case as a district judge would if all parties to the case have consented to the magistrate judge’s jurisdiction. Parties must consent voluntarily and affirmatively—although consent can be implied from the circumstances—to protect the parties’ constitutional right to have their case heard by an Article III judge. To vindicate this right, a body of jurisprudence has developed distinguishing dispositive matters, for which a magistrate judge requires the consent of all the parties in a case to rule on the matter, and nondispositive matters, for which a magistrate judge does not require the consent of all the parties to rule on the matter. As to third-party motions to intervene, the federal courts of appeals are split: in the Second Circuit, a magistrate judge cannot rule on a third-party’s motion to intervene without its consent, while in the Seventh and Ninth Circuits, a magistrate judge can. The circuits’ different treatments of a motion to intervene before a magistrate judge creates the opportunity for litigation gamesmanship and inequities across the circuits: It is possible for litigants to use this nuance in magistrate judge civil consent-based jurisdiction to slow down litigation or to unfairly obtain additional review of their motions to intervene that they would otherwise not receive if the cases had proceeded before a district judge.

This Note addresses the split between the Second Circuit and the Seventh and Ninth Circuits. It ultimately argues in favor of the Seventh and Ninth Circuits’ approach—that magistrate judges should be permitted to rule on a third-party’s motion to intervene without its consent in civil cases where the original parties have consented to the jurisdiction of a magistrate judge. This Note argues that doing so is within the broad statutory authorization of magistrate judge civil consent jurisdiction under the Federal Magistrates Act and that the U.S. Constitution does not bar such an interpretation. This Note also argues that the Seventh and Ninth Circuits’ jurisprudence ensures that cases proceed expediently and fairly, while avoiding gamesmanship and disincentives to magistrate judge jurisdiction.