Petty Offenses and Article III

19 Green Bag 2d, 2016, Forthcoming

American University, WCL Research Paper No. 2015-18

13 Pages Posted: 16 Aug 2015 Last revised: 10 Dec 2015

Date Written: August 25, 2015


Federal law allows magistrate judges — jurists who are neither appointed by the President nor confirmed by the Senate, and who lack Article III’s salary and tenure protections — to preside over and render judgments in federal criminal trials for petty offenses without the defendant’s consent. This petty offense jurisdiction is unique; the only other circumstances in which magistrate judges are entitled by statute to render judgments (as opposed to serving as “adjuncts” to district judges) are in civil and misdemeanor criminal cases in which the parties expressly consent to having their claims resolved by a non-Article III federal judge. To be sure, whether (and when) consent is sufficient to ameliorate the constitutional objections to adjudication by non-Article III federal judges is certainly a hot topic. But in this short essay, I mean to ask a different question — and one which the Supreme Court has never directly answered: Why does Article III also permit non-Article III magistrate judges to try petty offenses without the defendant’s consent?

In its recent decision in United States v. Hollingsworth, a divided panel of the Fifth Circuit offered its own answer. As Judge Edith Brown Clement reasoned, at least where the offense was committed on a “federal enclave,” the magistrate’s authority can — and should — be analogized to Congress’s constitutional power to create non-Article III courts to try all criminal offenses (along with civil suits) arising in the federal territories, like the Article I District of Columbia Superior Court. Given that the Supreme Court expressly upheld such authority in Palmore v. United States, Judge Clement concluded, it should follow that Congress may take the putatively lesser step of delegating jurisdiction over offenses committed within the exclusive physical jurisdiction of the federal government to federal magistrate judges. The short essay has two goals: First, it suggests three related reasons why the Fifth Circuit’s analysis in Hollingsworth is deeply flawed: (1) the court’s failure to engage the actual text of the Federal Magistrate Act, which turns on the status, and not the location, of the offense; (2) the obvious (and, in my view, constitutionally significant) distinctions between Hollingsworth and Palmore; and (3) the serious problems with Palmore itself, which ought to have further militated in favor of reading the 1973 precedent narrowly.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, this essay suggests that the Fifth Circuit nevertheless reached the correct result in Hollingsworth, given the long- and well-established exception to the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury for petty offenses. Although Judge Clement failed to tie the two together, the Supreme Court has, in other contexts, repeatedly understood the permissible scope of non-Article III federal criminal adjudication by reference to the applicability of the Constitution’s jury-trial protections. By focusing on status rather than location, this essay endeavors to demonstrate that Congress drew the more defensible constitutional distinction — and that the petty offense jurisdiction of magistrate judges is categorically consistent with the prevailing doctrinal understanding of Article III, even if the reasoning of Hollingsworth is not.

At a minimum, pegging the petty offense jurisdiction of magistrate judges to the petty offense exception to the Sixth Amendment yields a more satisfying theoretical and practical justification for the result in Hollingsworth, and one that explains why the petty offense jurisdiction of magistrate judges should be upheld even when the underlying offense is not committed on exclusively federal land. But it may do more than that: insofar as the Supreme Court has elsewhere tied the permissible scope of non-Article III federal criminal adjudication to jury-trial rights, properly accounting for the petty offense jurisdiction of magistrate judges might further highlight how the jury-trial rights of Article III and the Sixth Amendment should inform the permissible scope of all non-Article III federal criminal adjudication.

Keywords: Hollingsworth, Palmore, magistrate, magistrate judges, Article III, non-Article III, federal courts, federal criminal adjudication

Suggested Citation

Vladeck, Stephen I., Petty Offenses and Article III (August 25, 2015). 19 Green Bag 2d, 2016, Forthcoming, American University, WCL Research Paper No. 2015-18, Available at SSRN:

Stephen I. Vladeck (Contact Author)

University of Texas School of Law ( email )

727 East Dean Keeton Street
Austin, TX 78705
United States
5124759198 (Phone)

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