Special Master

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Special Master

A representative of the court appointed to hear a case involving difficult or specialized issues.

Special masters are officers of the court who serve in a Quasi-Judicial role at the pleasure of the appointing court. Special masters are employed in complex civil actions where their expertise would assist the court in developing the record. In addition, special masters may be established by Congress to assist in the administration of claims against the government.

Rule 53 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP) provides the authority for the appointment of special masters by U.S. District Courts. Because state civil procedure rules are modeled on the FRCP, similar authority is granted to state trial courts. Rule 53 defines the word master to include referees, auditors, examiners, and assessors. Special masters are compensated for their work. The court sets the rate of compensation, and the parties must pay these costs. However, when a federal magistrate judge serves as a master, no additional compensation is paid.

Reference of a case to a master "shall be the exception and not the rule" according to Rule 53. When a matter is to be tried before a jury, a referral to a special master is appropriate only if the issues are complicated. If a case is not to be tried before a jury, a special master is appropriate only when "some exceptional condition requires it." The Supreme Court, in La Buy v. Howes Leather Company, 352 U.S. 249, 77 S. Ct. 309, 1 L. Ed. 2d 290 (1957), ruled that court congestion that delayed cases for long periods did not, by itself, become an exceptional condition that justified the appointment of a special master. In addition, the complexity of the case must be extreme, as many fields of Civil Law are complex. To rule otherwise would deprive parties of their right to a jury trial. Though the Court made the appointment of special masters more difficult, lower courts have used masters when they could justify the complexity and exceptional nature of the case.

The appointing court may specify or limit the powers of the master and may also limit the issues the master considers. However, once given this appointing order the special master has the authority to regulate all proceedings and to compel the production of documents and other evidence. In addition, the master may put witnesses and parties under oath and may examine them. Once the evidence has been taken, the special master files a report with the appointing court. This report may contain findings of fact and conclusions of law. Once a master's report has been filed in a non-jury case, the court must accept the findings of fact unless they are clearly erroneous. In a jury action the master's findings are admissible as evidence of the matters found and may be read to the jury.

Special masters have been called upon to review and administer agreements made by parties through consent orders. Masters have helped federal courts run school districts and oversee prison systems that had been found to violate the rights of inmates. Environmental lawsuits have also been an area in which the courts have used special masters. In some lawsuits masters have been called upon to review a defendant's internal documents to see whether they may remain confidential because they are attorney-client work product.

Congress established the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund of 2001 to compensate the victims of the terrorist attacks and their families. Congress created the position of special master to administer the claims process. Attorney General john ashcroft appointed Kenneth R. Feinberg to serve in that capacity. Feinberg has sole authority to determine what each claimant will receive. His rulings are not appealable to a court of law because claimants must waive this right when they apply to the fund for compensation. If they do not agree to this condition they must file a civil lawsuit against private parties they believe were negligent for the September 11th Attacks of 2001.

Further readings

Coyle, Marcia. 2002. "He Specializes in Being a Special Master: His Reports Criticized U.S. Government in the Indian Trust Fund Case." National Law Journal (January 7).

Hurtado, Patricia. 2003. "Judge Affirms 9/11 Fund: Finds Award Process Is Fair." Newsday (May 9).

Marquez, Sandra. 2002. "Court OKs Subpoena of L.A. Church Papers." Associated Press (December 3).

Mauro, Tony. 2003. "Mastering the Court: A Fight between Maryland and Virginia Highlights the Role of Supreme Court Special Masters—and the Maine Firm that Has Cornered the Market on this Prestigious Work." Legal Times (September 29).

Tucker, Neely. 2003. "Interior Gets Break in Trust Fund Case; Judges Halt Work of Special Master." Washington Post (April 25).


Judge; Judiciary; Litigation.

special master

n. a person appointed by the court to carry out an order of the court, such as selling property or mediating child custody cases. A "special" master differs from a "master" in that he/she takes positive action rather than just investigating and reporting to the judge. (See: master)

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