Mathews v. Weber - 423 U.S. 261 (1976)
U.S. Supreme Court
Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261 (1976)
Mathews v. Weber
Argued November 4, 1975
Decided January 14, 1976
423 U.S. 261
In addition to authorizing United States magistrates to perform certain specified statutory functions, the Federal Magistrates Act (Act) authorizes district courts to assign to magistrates "such additional duties as are not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b). Pursuant to that provision, the District Court adopted General Order No. 104-D, which, inter alia, requires initial reference to a magistrate of actions to review administrative determinations regarding entitlement to Social Security benefits, including Medicare. Respondent challenged the final determination of the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare that respondent was not entitled to claimed Medicare benefits. Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) a district court can review such a determination only on the basis of the pleadings and administrative record, and the court is bound by the Secretary's factual findings if supported by substantial evidence. The case was assigned to a District Judge and, at the same time, referred to a Magistrate to
"prepare a proposed written order or decision, together with proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law where necessary or appropriate"
for consideration by the District Judge after the Magistrate had reviewed the record and heard the parties' arguments. Contending that the reference to the Magistrate under the District Court's general order violated Fed.Rule Civ.Proc. 53(b), and was not authorized by the Act, the Secretary moved to vacate the order of reference. The District Court refused to vacate the reference order. The Court of Appeals affirmed.
Held: In the context of this case, the preliminary review function assigned to the Magistrate was one of the "additional duties" that the Act contemplates magistrates are to perform. Pp. 423 U. S. 266-275.
(a) Section 636(b) was enacted to permit district courts to increase the scope of responsibilities that magistrates can undertake upon reference, as part of its plan "to establish a system
capable of increasing the overall efficiency of the Federal judiciary." But Congress also intended that, in such references, the district judge retain ultimate responsibility for decisionmaking. Pp. 423 U. S. 266-270.
(b) In this type of case, the magistrate helps the court focus on the relevant portions of what might be a voluminous record and move directly to any substantial legal arguments by putting before the court a preliminary evaluation of the evidence in the record. Although substantially assisting the court, the magistrate performs only a preliminary review of a closed administrative record, and any recommendation to the court is confined to whether or not substantial evidence supports the Secretary's decision. The final determination remains with the judge, who has discretion to review the record anew. Pp. 423 U. S. 270-272.
(c) The order of reference here does not constitute the magistrate a special master, and there is no conflict with the requirement of Fed.Rule Civ.Proc. 53(b) that "reference to a master shall be the exception and not the rule," made in nonjury cases "only upon a showing that some exceptional condition requires it." The magistrate here acts in an advisory role as a magistrate, not as a master; the judge is free to accept or reject the magistrate's recommendation in whole or in part, whereas, under Rule 53(e), the court must accept a special master's finding of fact if it is not clearly erroneous. La Buy v. Howes Leather Co., 352 U. S. 249, distinguished. Pp. 423 U. S. 272-275.
503 F.2d 1049, affirmed.
BURGER, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all Members joined, except STEVENS, J., who took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.