I recently began developing a new unit for my students that I call “Inglés Jurídico 101” in which I outline the mistakes that they just can’t afford to make if they claim to know legal English. The first section focuses on the most common legal “false cognates” (false friends; falsos amigos), those dangerous look-alikes that can make you say something you really don’t mean if you don’t distinguish between the two terms in question. In this and in future blog posts I will be sharing some of my favorites.
A really basic pair of “false friends” is magistrado and magistrate. Distinguishing the difference shouldn’t present a problem but, unfortunately, magistrado has been mistranslated as “magistrate” dozens (or maybe hundreds) of times, even on official judicial websites.
So what is a “magistrate”? In England and Wales magistrates (also known as “justices of the peace”) are lay judges (jueces legos) who have no formal legal training. They preside over Magistrates Courts, lower courts where criminal proceedings are first brought, and which likewise handle some civil matters. The webpage of the UK Courts and Tribunals Judiciary describes them as “21,500 volunteer judicial office holders who serve in magistrates’ courts throughout England and Wales… Magistrates do not require legal training or qualifications.”* In the United States, US federal magistrate judges (who do hold law degrees and have been admitted to the bar) assist in district courts (i.e., the federal trial courts) exercising the jurisdiction delegated to them by law and assigned to them by the district court judge.
So why can’t magistrado be translated as “magistrate”? Because in contrast to magistrates, magistrados are the highest level of judge in Spain (and in other Spanish-speaking jurisdictions), defined as funcionario perteneciente a la carrera judicial de categoría superior a la de juez (Diccionario Jurídico Colex). Indeed, magistrados generally sit in panels on the higher, appellate courts. In that regard, the judges on the Spanish Supreme Court and Constitutional Court are known respectively as Magistrados del Tribunal Supremo and Magistrados del Tribunal Constitucional.
Thus, confusing magistrado and magistrate would appear to be a beginner’s mistake and, yet, this mistranslation has been propagated by many, even official, sources. As an example, the English translation of the Ley Orgánica del Poder Judicial appearing on the webpage of Spain’s Consejo General del Poder Judicial** refers to “Magistrates of the Constitutional and the Supreme Court.” Likewise, the expression jueces y magistrados, so often repeated in the law, is rendered as “judges and magistrates.”
As for an appropriate translation, magistrado can most often be rendered simply as “judge.” If a distinction has to be made between juez and magistrado, perhaps magistrado may be translated as “senior judge,” described as a member of a multi-judge court (órgano colegiado) or, where warranted, referred to as an “appellate court judge.”
Note: Judges promoted to the category of magistrado who choose to continue to preside over a lower court (juzgado) are called magistrado-jueces.