New Jersey’s federal district has a complement of 12 magistrate judges — the highest number in its history — and in practitioners’ views they form an incredibly competent cadre.
Lawyers responding to the Law Journal survey this year rated these judges better in all nine performance categories than the district judges they serve, with an overall score of 8.73 that was 5.39 percent higher than the district judges’ score of 8.28.
Magistrate judges have fared well in earlier surveys. Last year, they drew an average overall score of 8.42, which was 2.8 percent above the district judges’ 8.19.
But the upward departure in scores is even more remarkable this year because so many of the magistrate judges are relatively new to the bench. Seven out of the 12 took office after our last survey.
Douglas Arpert, Lois Goodman and Karen Williams were seated in 2009, Joseph Dickson in 2010, Michael Hammer and Cathy Waldor in 2011 and Steven Mannion in 2012.
That means judges with at most three years of experience are, on the average, besting seasoned judges in all categories of performance across the board.
Since the judicial survey asks for the perceptions of lawyers about judges’ competencies, as opposed to empirical data, it’s hard to discern whether these judges are as good as they’re said to be.
Practitioners tend to see magistrate judges as down to earth and more understanding of the rigors of litigation. These jurists are hired as job applicants by a merit committee, not political appointees. Lawyers see them more as colleagues and grade accordingly.
But particularly arresting is the magistrate judges’ perceived performance in two categories in which district judges fared poorest: ability to foster settlements and speed in moving proceedings and making decisions.
Magistrate judges were rated 8.38 in settlement skills, 7.35 percent higher than the district judges’ 7.81. And in terms of speed, they blew the district judges’ 7.75 away by more than 10 percent, with 8.54.
In fact, only two of the magistrate judges scored less than 8.0 in settlement skills and only one fell below that mark in speed.
Settlement brokering is often seen as a skill that comes with experience, but the magistrate judge who excelled in that category, and in speed, was Arpert, who has been on the bench since 2009.
Arpert led the magistrate judges in most categories and with an overall score of 9.19. Tonianne Bongiovanni, a 2003 appointee, came in second at 9.09, followed by Hammer, a 2011 hire, at 9.02.
Like the district judges, the magistrate judges earned their highest marks, averaging 9.41, for lack of bias as to race, gender and party identity, followed by courtesy and respect shown to lawyers and litigants, 9.02. The demeanor score topped the district judges by 5.95 percent. •