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BOSTON — The U.S. District Court in Massachusetts launched a two-year pilot program this month to randomly assign a limited number of civil cases to one of the district’s five magistrate judges. U.S. district court judges, who are appointed for life terms by the president of the United States, can appoint magistrate judges for eight- or four-year teams. The district courts have some discretion about the duties assigned to magistrate judges. In Massachusetts, the cases given to the magistrates will stay with them through trial if the parties consent. The district is experimenting with the program because criminal cases frequently take priority over civil cases to meet requirements of the Speedy Trial Act of 1974, said Chief Judge Mark L. Wolf. Magistrate judges are “almost always in a position to give people a swifter and more certain trial date than a district judge could because of our obligations in criminal cases,” Wolf said. Wolf said the program has also been used successfully in the district’s Springfield and Worcester divisions. More than 20 districts nationwide have similar programs, including the districts of Arizona, New Hampshire, Oregon and Vermont. The court anticipates that one of every 11 civil cases in the Boston division of the district will be funneled to a magistrate judge. “It’s just offering the public and the bar an opportunity to take advantage of our excellent magistrate judges if they want to,” Wolf said. The district will assess the program’s performance each year and decide whether to continue it after two years.

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