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  • Writer's pictureLaurie M. Wasserman

Who Decides Your Family Law Case: Judges vs. Magistrates

In Maryland courts, family law cases play out much differently than they do on the big screen. For those unfamiliar with the process, there are no juries involved in Maryland family court. Instead, only one person makes the decision in family law cases that go to trial--a judge or a family law magistrate.

In this blog post, we highlight the primary distinctions between magistrates and judges, the differences in their authority, and what families may expect from upcoming court hearings.

The Authorities of a Judge

The role of a judge is to preside over trials, interpret laws, and issue rulings on matters pending before the court. Generally, judges are regarded as the highest level of authority in court. During family law trials, a judge will rule on objections, consider evidence, and make the ultimate decision in the matter brought to the court. Only judges have the authority to enter court orders.

The Authorities of a Family Law Magistrate

Magistrates in Maryland circuit courts serve a vital role. Unlike judges, who are appointed by the Governor or by an election, Magistrates are employees of the Maryland Judiciary and serve at the pleasure of the Court. Magistrates only hear family law related cases, which helps the courts process the high number of domestic cases that are filed every year. Like judges, magistrates preside over trials, rule on objections, consider the evidence, and make a decision on a case.

Despite being an authority in the court, magistrates are not judges, and therefore cannot sign court orders. Instead, magistrates make written “reports and recommendations,” which can become a court order after being sent to a judge for signature.

What Types of Cases are Heard Before Magistrates and Judges?

Although each court has the authority to determine what types of cases a magistrate will preside over, they generally hear the following:

  • No-fault divorces

  • Temporary (pendente lite) alimony, child support, custody, and use and possession of the family home cases

  • Modification of custody, alimony, and child support cases

  • Contempt cases

While judges have the authority to hear all the same cases that a magistrate can hear, they typically do not. Instead, judges preside over other family law cases, including, but not limited to:

  • Contested divorces

  • Custody establishment cases

  • Child support establishment cases

  • Alimony establishment cases

  • Cases involving division of real or personal property

  • Adoptions

  • Domestic violence petitions

  • Multi-day trials of any family law area

What is The Difference Between a Magistrate’s Hearing and a Judge’s Hearing?

All family law hearings essentially follow the same structure, regardless of whether they are under a judge or a magistrate. Both a magistrate’s hearing and a judge’s hearing require the parties to follow the rules of evidence.

The moving party (plaintiff) puts on their case first, followed by the non-moving party (defendant). Both parties are allowed to provide opening and closing statements. In both cases, exhibits are entered into evidence, witnesses can be called to testify, and cases are “on the record” meaning they are recorded and can be transcribed.

The primary difference between a judge’s hearing and a magistrate’s hearing is the power of their final decisions. When a judge makes a final decision after weighing all the evidence, the decision becomes a court order.

When a magistrate weighs all the evidence, they can only decide upon a legal “recommendation” to be sent to a judge for signature. After a magistrate’s recommendation is issued, each party is permitted 10 days to file “exceptions.” Exceptions are like appeals, but rather than appealing a court order to a higher court, exceptions are heard by a Circuit Court judge to determine if the magistrate made a mistake in their recommendation. If neither party files exceptions to the magistrate’s recommendation, the recommendation turned into a court order and sent to a judge for signature after the 10-day waiting period.

What If I Am Unhappy with the Ruling?

For those who had their case heard before a judge and are unhappy with the judge’s ruling, you are permitted to:

  • File a motion for a new trial

  • File a motion to alter or amend the order

  • Request an en banc review of the case

  • File an appeal to a higher court

Generally, these requests must be filed within 10 days of the entry of an order. An appeal must be filed within 30 days of the entry of an order.

For those who are unhappy with a magistrate’s recommendation and would like to file exceptions, you must explain in detail what error the magistrate made in making their recommendation. From the court’s perspective, the facts of the case are presumed to be correct and are rejected only if unsupported by the record.

After you file exceptions, a judge will review and determine if any of the exceptions should be granted or denied. Judges have the authority to decide on exceptions based solely on the written filings but may also request a hearing before deciding. Depending on the circumstances, judges can remand the case back to the magistrate.

Following the review of an exception, judges can either enter an order that differs from the magistrate’s recommendation or deny the exception and enter the magistrate’s recommendations into an order.

When navigating a family law case, it’s important to have the right representation. Please contact our office to inquire about further information regarding family law hearings and appeals. The experienced family law attorneys at our firm are here to help guide and advocate for you.

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Disclaimer: Opinions and conclusions in these blog posts are solely those of the author unless otherwise indicated. The information contained in this blog is general in nature and is not offered and cannot be considered as legal advice for any particular situation. For legal advice, you should directly consult a lawyer to discuss the specific facts of your matter.

By reading this blog, you acknowledge that there is no attorney-client relationship between you and the author.

Any links provided are for informational purposes only and by doing so, the author does not adopt or incorporate the contents. The author is the legal copyright holder of all materials on the blog, and they cannot be repurposed without permission.


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