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Farmer v. Litscher

September 18, 2002

JAMES A. FARMER, PETITIONER-APPELLANT,
v.
JON E. LITSCHER, SECRETARY, WISCONSIN DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, RESPONDENT-APPELLEE.
EMMETT WHITE, PETITIONER-APPELLANT,
v.
PHILLIP KINGSTON, WARDEN, COLUMBIA CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTION, RESPONDENT-APPELLEE.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. No. 99-C-1119--Aaron E. Goodstein, Magistrate Judge. Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. No. 98-C-901--Aaron E. Goodstein, Magistrate Judge.

Before Bauer, Evans, and Williams, Circuit Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Bauer, Circuit Judge.

SUBMITTED JUNE 3, 2002

The appellants are state prisoners who petitioned the district court pro se for writs of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. By consent of the parties, see 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), the district court referred both cases for all proceedings to Magistrate Judge Goodstein, who denied the petitions and refused to issue certificates of appealability. 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c)(1). The appellants now seek certificates from us. We consolidated the cases and directed counsel to brief the following question: does a magistrate judge acting with the parties' consent have the authority under § 636(c) to issue a final judgment in a § 2254 proceeding? *fn1

I.

Answering this question requires us to consider whether Congress intended to vest magistrate judges with the questioned authority and, if so, whether that delegation of authority runs afoul of Article III of the United States Constitution. We must tackle the statutory question first. See ISI Int'l, Inc. v. Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, 256 F.3d 548, 552 (7th Cir. 2001) ("[F]ederal courts are supposed to do what they can to avoid making constitutional decisions, and strive doubly to avoid making unnecessary constitutional decisions.").

Section 636 of the Federal Magistrate Act governs the jurisdiction and powers of magistrate judges and provides in relevant part:

Upon the consent of the parties, a full-time United States magistrate or a part-time United States magistrate who serves as a full-time judicial officer may conduct any or all proceedings in a jury or non-jury civil matter and order the entry of judgment in the case, when specially designated to exercise such jurisdiction by the district court or courts he serves . . . . 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1).

Because the parties consented and the district court referred the cases to Magistrate Judge Goodstein, the only relevant question is whether a habeas corpus proceeding is a "civil matter" under § 636(c). A number of our sister circuits have answered in the affirmative, see United States v. Johnston, 258 F.3d 361, 366 (5th Cir. 2001) (28 U.S.C. § 2255); Norris v. Schotten, 146 F.3d 314, 324 (6th Cir. 1998) (§ 2254); Orsini v. Wallace, 913 F.2d 474, 476 (8th Cir. 1990) (§ 2254), and we agree. The appellants rightly observe that § 2254 petitions differ from other civil actions because they arise from criminal cases. See Harris v. Nelson, 394 U.S. 286, 294 (1969) ("Essentially, the [habeas corpus] proceeding is unique."); Walker v. O'Brien, 216 F.3d 626, 636 (7th Cir. 2000) ("[H]abeas corpus petitions are a group unto themselves."). Nevertheless, a § 2254 petition is a "civil matter" in the larger sense--in the sense that it is not a criminal matter. See Walker, 216 F.3d at 636. Habeas corpus cases had been characterized as civil actions since long before Congress passed the Federal Magistrate Act. See, e.g., Fisher v. Baker, 203 U.S. 174, 181 (1906). We must presume that Congress knew when it passed the Federal Magistrate Act that habeas corpus cases are commonly understood to be civil actions, and that Congress therefore would have drafted § 636(c) to exclude habeas corpus proceedings expressly if that were the intention. See Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775, 792 (1998) (Congress is presumed to be aware of relevant legal precedents when it legislates).

But what of the language in § 636(b)(1)(B)? That section provides that a district judge may "designate a magistrate to . . . submit to a judge of the court proposed findings of fact and recommendations for the disposition, by a judge of the court, . . . of applications for posttrial relief made by individuals convicted of criminal offenses," see 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B)--in other words, habeas corpus petitions. See Porter v. Nussle, 122 S. Ct. 983, 989 (2002). Section 636(c) does not include such language; it says nothing about applications for post-conviction relief. The appellants argue that if Congress had intended to include § 2254 petitions in § 636(c) it would have parroted the "posttrial relief" language in § 636(b). Therefore, the appellants argue, § 2254 petitions cannot be "civil matters" under § 636(c). We disagree. Section 636(b)(1)(B) does not limit § 636(c); instead they are independent provisions that address different circumstances. Section 636(b) defines a magistrate judge's authority when a district judge refers a matter to the magistrate judge without the parties' consent. Section 636(c), on the other hand, defines the magistrate judge's authority when both designation and consent are present. See Members v. Paige, 140 F.3d 699, 701 (7th Cir. 1998); Alpern v. Lieb, 38 F.3d 933, 935 (7th Cir. 1994). Thus, with consent, a magistrate judge can enter a final judgment in a habeas corpus proceeding under § 636(c); without it, a magistrate judge's authority is limited to making a recommendation to the district judge under § 636(b). See Orsini, 913 F.2d at 476 ("[T]he plain language of section 636(c)--even in light of the specific inclusion of habeas petitions in section 636(b)(1)(B)--indicates that magistrates . . . have jurisdiction to order entry of judgment in a habeas case.").

Moreover, the appellants' construction ignores that § 636(b)(1)(B) also expressly includes "prisoner petitions challenging conditions of confinement." Like applications for post-conviction relief, § 636(c) says nothing about challenges to conditions of confinement. Following the appellants' logic, then, Congress did not intend to include actions challenging conditions of confinement under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 as "civil matters" under § 636(c). But that interpretation cannot be right. Section 1983 cases are indisputably civil matters. And we note that magistrate judges have entered final judgments in § 1983 cases in a number of circuits without raising any jurisdictional eyebrows. See Hains v. Washington, 131 F.3d 1248 (7th Cir. 1997); Brown v. Harris, 240 F.3d 383 (4th Cir. 2001); Berry v. Brady, 192 F.3d 504 (5th Cir. 1999); Lake v. Arnold, 112 F.3d 682 (3d Cir. 1997); Porter v. Fox, 99 F.3d 271 (8th Cir. 1999). We see no reason to treat habeas corpus petitions differently. Accordingly, we join the other courts of appeals that have considered the question in concluding that, based on the parties' consent, § 636(c) confers on magistrate judges the authority to enter final judgments in § 2254 proceedings.

II.

We turn then to the question whether application of § 636(c) to § 2254 cases is an unconstitutional delegation of the judicial power in violation of Article III. Preliminarily, we reject the State's contention that the appellants waived any constitutional challenge to Magistrate Judge Goodstein's authority because they consented to it. When the question is whether Congress has legitimately transferred jurisdiction to non-Article III tribunals "the parties cannot by consent cure the constitutional difficulty for the same reason that the parties by consent cannot confer on federal courts subject-matter jurisdiction beyond the limitations imposed by Article III." Commodity Futures Trading Comm'n v. Schor, 478 U.S. 833, 850-51 (1986).

As to the merits, although the Supreme Court has yet to weigh in, we and the other circuits have concluded uniformly that § 636(c) does not run afoul of Article III. See Geras v. Lafayette Display Fixtures, Inc., 742 F.2d 1037 (7th Cir. 1984); Johnston, 258 F.3d at 367-68 (collecting authorities). But the appellants maintain that we should carve out an exception--that § 2254 proceedings are not like other civil matters because (1) Article III "judicial power" includes the power to issue writs of habeas corpus so that delegating the adjudication of § 2254 petitions to magistrate judges constitutes an impermissible suspension of the writ under Article I, Section 9, Clause 2, (2) allowing a magistrate judge to review the ...


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