Section 2255 proceedings often require resolution of non-dispositive matters, and always require resolution of at least one dispositive matter — whether to grant the section 2255 movant relief. In many, if not most federal jurisdictions, magistrate judges are responsible for the resolution of matters associated with section 2255 motions. Special considerations are necessary, as magistrate judge practice presents traps for the unwary.
Referral to a Magistrate Judge in 2255 Proceedings
Rule 8(b) of the Rules Governing Section 2255 Proceedings permits a district judge to “refer the [section 2255] motion to a magistrate judge to conduct hearings and to file proposed findings of fact and recommendations for disposition.” The Federal Magistrates Act, 28 U.S.C. §631 et seq., permits a these judges to “hear and determine” non-dispositive matters, such as requests for continuance and discovery disputes, in full. §636(b)(l)(A). Dispositive matters, such as decisions on the merits, may also be heard by a magistrate judge, but may not be finally determined by this type of judge. 636(b)(1)(B).
The Interplay Between Magistrate Judge and District Court Judge
In practice, the magistrate judge will issue orders on non-dispositive matters. The parties may object to such orders, but the district court judge is not required to review them. See §636(b)(l)(A)(The district judge”may reconsider” the magistrate judge’s determination of non-dispositive pretrial matters “where it has been shown that the magistrate’s order is clearly erroneous or contrary to law.”)(emphasis added).
When it comes to dispositive matters, however, the magistrate judge will issue “proposed findings of fact and recommendations for . . . disposition”– not orders. See §636(b)(l)(B). The parties are afforded 14 days to file objections to the judge’s report and recommendation. If such an objection is timely filed, the district court must “make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made.” §636(b)(1); accord Rule 8(b) of the Rules Governing Section 2255 Proceedings.
The district court judge’s de novo review extends to both legal conclusions and factual findings. Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 150 & n. 8 (1985). If the objection involves an evidentiary hearing conducted by a magistrate judge, “the district court must, at a minimum, listen to a tape recording or read a transcript of the evidentiary hearing.” Jones v. Pillow, 47 F.3d 251, 252 (8th Cir. 1995).
Both Rule 8 and §636(b)(1) permit the district court judge to “accept, reject, or modify” in whole or in part, the magistrate judge’s recommendations. The statute also allows the district court judge to “receive further evidence or recommit the matter to the magistrate with instructions.”
Object Timely to the Magistrate Judge to Obtain Review by District Court Judge
The section 2255 litigant must proceed carefully when her case is referred to a magistrate· judge. If the movant fails to object in a timely manner, the district court is under no obligation to conduct any review — even of a dispositive decision. As such, the movant must object in a timely manner in order to ensure that a federal district court judge reviews the magistrate judge’s determinations.
There is another equally important reason to ensure that timely objections are made. In many circuits, recommendations made by the magistrate that are adopted by the district court judge without objection become virtually unreviewable on appeal. See, e.g., Mitchell v. United States, 612 Fed.Appx. 542, 545 (11th Cir. 2015)(“A party failing to object to a magistrate judge’s findings or recommendations contained in a report and recommendation in accordance with the provisions of 28 U.S.C. 636(b)(1) waives the right to challenge on appeal the district court’s order based on unobjected factual and legal conclusions if the party was informed of the time period for objecting and the consequences on appeal for failing to object.”). Note that some circuits bar appellate waiver when the litigant is pro-se, and was not provided notice of the consequence of failure to object. See, e.g., Haney v. Addison, 175 F.3d 1217, 12l9-20 (10th Cir. 1999); Frank v. Johnson, 968 F.2d 298, 300 (2d Cir. 1992).
Local Court Rules in 2255 Proceedings
Local court rules control whether section 2255 motions are referred to a magistrate judge. Federal courts, however, are very busy, and as a general rule, it is safe to assume that a magistrate judge will have some level of involvement in most habeas corpus proceedings. A section 2255 litigant must be prepared to encounter a magistrate judge, and to properly respond to a report and recommendation.
Lawyers Experienced with Magistrate Judges and 2255 Proceedings
The attorneys at the Law Offices of Brandon Sample practice before magistrate judges on a regular basis. Our experienced staff know what to expect from these types of judges, and how to proceed so that our clients’ rights are protected. If you or a loved one are considering filing a section 2255 motion based on ineffective assistance of counsel or any other constitutional violation, contact us for a consultation. We will walk you through your options and, if retained, will give you the best chance at success in habeas corpus court.
Magistrate Judge in 2255 Proceedings FAQs
Q: What is a federal magistrate judge?
A: A federal magistrate judge is a judicial officer appointed by the district court judges in each federal judicial circuit. District court judges routinely refer a variety of matters to such judges for resolution. A magistrate judge may make decisions and determinations in a given federal case, including a habeas corpus case, but such decisions are usually reviewable by a district court judge.
Q: My section 2255 motion was referred to a magistrate judge. What can they do in my case?
A: Rule 8 of the Rules Governing Section 2255 Proceedings permits a magistrate judge to “conduct hearings and to file proposed findings of fact and recommendations for disposition.” The Federal Magistrates Act, 28 U.S.C. §631 et seq., permits a magistrate judge to “hear and determine” non-dispositive matters, but only to hear dispositive matters. In practice, these judges may make final determinations only on lesser matters, such as discovery disputes. Any decision on a dispositive matter, such as the merits of a section 2255 motion, may only be recommended by the magistrate judge; the district court judge will make the final determination on a dispositive matter.
Q: I just received a “report and recommendation” from the magistrate judge that recommends that my section 2255 motion be denied. What should I do?
A: When a magistrate judge issues a “report and recommendation,” the parties may file objections to the report. Such objections should be specific, and must be filed within 14 days of the issuance of the report. Proper and timely objections to the report and recommendation require the district court judge to make a de novo determination of his own.
Q: I have heard that a magistrate judge can only be referred to my case with my permission. Is that true?
A: In most federal cases, the parties must all agree to the referral of any matter to a magistrate judge. That is not the case in section 2255 proceedings, however. It is, in fact, very likely that any section 2255 motion will involve such a judge at some point. Magistrate judge practice can be complicated, and there are traps for the unwary. If you have found yourself at the mercy of this type of judge, contact us now. Our experienced and professional staff know the ins and outs of magistrate judge practice — including the possible benefits associated with referral to a magistrate.