United States v. Harden, No. 13-1323 (7th Cir. 2014)Annotate this Case
Harden pled guilty to possession with the intent to distribute cocaine under a written plea agreement. With Harden’s consent, the court instructed a magistrate judge to conduct a Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11 plea colloquy under a local rule allowing magistrate judges to accept felony guilty pleas. The magistrate judge accepted Harden’s guilty plea. The district court then conducted a sentencing hearing and imposed sentence. Harden appealed the magistrate judge’s acceptance of his plea, arguing that the magistrate’s acceptance of a felony guilty plea, instead of preparing a report and recommendation to the district court, violated the Federal Magistrates Act, 28 U.S.C. 636; Rule 59 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure; and the U.S. Constitution. The Seventh Circuit reversed, stating that the prevalence of guilty pleas does not render them less important, or the protections waived by plea any less fundamental. A felony guilty plea is equal in importance to a felony trial; without explicit authorization from Congress, the district court cannot delegate the task. The Supreme Court has never suggested that magistrate judges, with the parties’ consent, may perform every duty of an Article III judge.