U.S. Magistrate Judges have been utilized more frequently in recent years for alternative dispute resolution in the federal court system. This article discusses the history of the referral process, how and why cases are assigned to U.S. Magistrate Judges in the Houston and Galveston Divisions of the Southern District of Texas for settlement conferences, and what to expect if you are ordered to participate in a settlement conference.
In 1990, prompted by significant delays and costs associated with civil discovery, Congress enacted the Civil Justice Reform Act, which makes recommendations to address those problems by implementing case management principles and encouraging early judicial involvement in the discovery process. Among the recommendations was the use of court referrals of appropriate cases to mediation. In the years following, federal judges increasingly imposed mediation deadlines in their scheduling orders or, if the scheduling orders were silent on alternative dispute resolution, entertained motions compelling the parties to mediate. It was only a matter of time before U.S. Magistrate Judges were viewed as case management resources, especially in cases the U.S. District Judge believed should be mediated but where a party, typically a pro se litigant, could not afford to hire a mediator. Referrals to magistrate judges have expanded beyond cases with indigent parties and now encompass the full range of federal cases. However, limitations apply.
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