Saturday, May 30, 2009

General Magistrate Cannot Conduct Jury Trial in Florida

In Lackner v. Central Fla. Investments, Inc. (5D07-3542), the Fifth District vacated its prior decision and determined that a General Magistrate does not have jurisdiction to conduct a jury trial even with consent of both parties.

The docket for the case indicates that on April 9, 2009, the court entered an opinion. Apparently on the same day, the court entered an order sua sponte withdrawing the prior opinion and requiring the parties to brief the following issue: "ADDRESSING THE AUTHORITY OF A MAGISTRATE TO CONVENE AND PRESIDE OVER A JURY TRIAL."

The court stated:

Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.490 authorizes judges of the circuit court to appoint general and special magistrates. General magistrates continue in office until removed by the court and must take the oath of office required of officers by the Constitution. No matter can be referred to a magistrate without the parties' consent. Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.490(a)-(c) (2009). A magistrate's general powers and duties are defined in subsection (d), which states in relevant part: "Every magistrate shall perform all of the duties that pertain to the office according to the practice in chancery and under the direction of the court." Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.490(d). Focusing on the word "all," the Appellant Lackner asserts that this provision should be interpreted to permit a magistrate to perform all functions of the trial court, including presiding over jury trials. This argument ignores the last part of the sentence, which limits a magistrate to those duties "that pertain to the office according to the practice in chancery and under the direction of the court." Id. The first part of this phrase seems to confine a magistrate to those duties traditionally exercised by magistrates in chancery, which largely consisted of taking witness testimony. The second part of the phrase clearly specifies that a magistrate's duties must be performed under the direction of the court. These two limitations weigh against interpreting the rule to permit a magistrate to preside over a jury trial, especially when considered in the context of the rest of rule 1.490.


Article V of the Florida Constitution vests judicial power exclusively in the courts. The authority to conduct jury trials is implicit in the judicial power, and the Legislature has made it explicit by statute. Section 40.001, Florida Statutes (2008), provides in relevant part: "The chief judge of each judicial circuit is vested with overall authority and responsibility for the management, operation, and oversight of the jury system within his or her circuit." Judicial powers vested in the courts by constitution or statute are nondelegable.


The problem in the present case is compounded by the fact that the magistrate did not issue a report or recommendation. Instead, he purported to render a final judgment in favor of Central Florida Investments...There is nothing in the record to suggest that this "final judgment" was ever adopted, ratified, or otherwise approved by the trial court. In other words, no appealable final order was ever rendered by the trial court; therefore, this court lacks jurisdiction to review the merits of the issues presented on appeal.


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