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Magistrate vs. District Court Judge in Family Law cases

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Where is my Judge?I was reading a recent Colorado Appeals Court decision today about the limited powers of magistrates in Colorado and it reminded me of the confusion that many clients have about the difference between the role of the judge in the...

Where is my Judge?
I was reading a recent Colorado Appeals Court decision today about the limited powers of magistrates in Colorado and it reminded me of the confusion that many clients have about the difference between the role of the judge in their family law case and the role of the magistrate.  Often, people with divorce or child custody issues find themselves in front of a magistrate.  Sometimes the result does not go their way and they wonder if they had been in front of the judge might it have gone differently.

The answer of course is: yes it might have gone differently.  The Judge and the Magistrate are two different people who could interpret the facts differently.  However, the question really is:  What can you do if you feel that the Magistrate has ruled incorrectly?

What is the Role of the Magistrate in Colorado Family Law Cases
Lets start with the fact that district court magistrates are not judges.  Although magistrates may perform functions which judges also perform, a magistrate is, at all times, subject to the direction and supervision of the chief judge or presiding judge.  So, in essence, the magistrate is delegated certain duties by the presiding judge but the presiding judge remains accountable.

We have a very high family law case volume in the Colorado District Court system.  In most counties, the district court judge has delegated pre-trial hearings to a magistrate in order to reduce the volume of hearings that he/she may have to personally handle.  These magistrates act as the trier of fact and do produce court orders on pre-trial matters.  This could include your Initial Status Conference, Temporary Orders Hearings Emergency Hearings or Contempt of Court hearings that may arise.  The final hearing (trial) in a family law matter is almost always handled by the district court judge.  Sometimes, it is hard to tell who will end up hearing a pre-trial matter in district court. It may be that the one or more of the magistrates are tied up and the Judge ends up hearing your pre-trial motion.  This is especially true of emergency motions since they have to be fit into an already packed docket.  In some counties the judge and the magistrates rotate who will hear emergency motions on a particular day. In these cases you might have a shot at choosing a day that the judge can hear your motion.  But, in the majority of cases, if the judge has a magistrate you will be in front of them on your typical pre-trial motions.

What Happens if You Feel an Error has been Made?
Lets look at the differences between an order by a district court judge and an order by a district court magistrate.

District Court Judges and Motions for Reconsideration
If a district court judge has ruled against you and you feel an error has been made, you have three possible remedies with the district court itself before you have to appeal the case the the Colorado Court of Appeals.  First, under C.R.C.P. 59(a) you have 15 days from the date of the order to file a post-trial motion requesting that the district court judge reconsider his/her judgment.  The judge may also reconsider their judgement sua sponte (on their own) within 15 days of judgement. (rule 59(c))  Lastly, under C.R.C.P. 60(b) a district court judge may consider a motion for relief from final judgment under certain defined circumstances.  If none of these motions are successful, your next step is to file an appeal with the Colorado Court of Appeals; an expensive process that can take a year or more to complete.

District Court Magistrates and the District Court Review
Magistrates are not accorded the powers of review just described above for district court judges.  They may not change their judgement/order once it is entered except to correct clerical errors (C.R.M. 5(a)).  They may not consider a motion for reconsideration or change the substance of an order on their own under rule 59(c).

The remedy you have if you feel that the magistrate has made an error is to ask for a District Court Review.  The district court judge may alter a magistrate's findings of fact if those findings are clearly erroneous. C.R.M. 7(a) (9).

No New Evidence Considered in a District Court Review
As you might imagine, a district court judge does not want to thoroughly review every court order issued by a magistrate.  This would make the efficiencies of using a magistrate moot.  So, in most cases, just because you don't like the verdict of the magistrate it doesn't mean that the judge is going to overturn it.  In many cases, the judge will support the ruling of the magistrate.  However, if you really feel that the facts of the case clearly do not support the magistrate's ruling, the Motion for District Court Review is your best bet.

It is important to note that when the judge does a District Court Review of the magistrate's ruling they are only able to look at the transcript of the hearing and the evidence that was presented.  No new evidence that may have arisen since the original hearing with the magistrate will be considered.  The Judge is looking at the record of what happened at the pre-trial hearing in question to see if an error occurred in the law or if the findings of fact were clearly erroneous.

If you need more information on the topic of Magistrates and how they are used in Family Law cases in Colorado please give Leslie Matthews at Matthews & Matthews PC a call at 303-329-3802.

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