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From the Bench: A Conversation with Presiding Magistrate Judge Karen S. Crawford

Updated: May 8

By David Fawcett*

Presiding U.S. Magistrate Judge Karen S. Crawford
Presiding U.S. Magistrate Judge Karen S. Crawford.

The Hon. Karen S. Crawford became the presiding magistrate judge for the United States District Court of the Southern District of California on April 1, 2024. She takes over from the recently retired Judge Bernard G. Skomal, who had served as the presiding magistrate judge since September 1, 2022. Under General Order 162-E, the presiding magistrate judge is the judge who is senior in appointment and meets certain age and experience criteria. Presiding magistrate judges generally serve a two-year term.


Judge Crawford was appointed as a magistrate judge in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California in March 2012. Her career before taking the bench includes working in private litigation in San Diego and in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She has also worked as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Civil Division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Diego and as a trial attorney in the Torts Branch of the DOJ’s Civil Division in Washington, D.C. Though she was born in Queens, New York, and has worked in numerous cities throughout the country, Judge Crawford, an alumna of the California Western School of Law, has always found her way back to San Diego.


In a recent interview with the San Diego FBA, Judge Crawford explained the role of magistrate judges in the federal judiciary, the position she has held for the past 12 years. The duties of a magistrate judge are defined by the district judges in that district based on their determinations of how magistrate judges can best assist in the administration of justice. Because of this, the duties of a magistrate judge in the Southern District of California might be completely different from those in other districts.


“Our job is essentially to streamline the cases for trial,” Judge Crawford explained, “to get them ready for trial, to assist the parties in narrowing the issues through discovery . . . and ideally to resolve cases so there are fewer cases that ultimately need to be tried by the district judges.”


Duties to this end include holding early neutral evaluation conferences, scheduling case management conferences and issuing scheduling orders, and holding mandatory settlement conferences. And that’s just the civil side of things: magistrate judges are also responsible for the intake of all criminal matters in our district. Because of our proximity to the border, “the number of criminal filings in this district is enormous compared to other districts,” explained Judge Crawford.


While serving as presiding magistrate judge, Judge Crawford maintains a full caseload of civil and criminal cases, and has additional responsibilities related to her new role. Judge Crawford serves as the liaison between the district judges and the magistrate judges and looks forward to assisting in the implementation of revised court procedures requested by the district judges to further streamline case administration and the resolution of cases. She schedules and presides over the magistrate judges’ twice monthly meetings, where they discuss revised protocols and issues that arise in their cases in order to share best practices. In addition to being a liaison between the magistrate judges and district court judges, the presiding magistrate judge acts as the spokesperson for our district’s magistrate judges.


When asked what advice she has for junior attorneys who appear before her—or any attorneys, for that matter—Judge Crawford said, “Be prepared, know about your case, and be professional.” She also urges attorneys to “prepare your clients properly” by educating them in advance of settlement conferences about the purpose of the conference and discussing realistic settlement expectations. She urges that in this age of video-conference appearances, treat those appearances with the formality that they deserve as official court hearings.


Although the responsibilities of presiding magistrate judge keep her busy, Judge Crawford always makes time for one of her passions: the American Inns of Court. The mission of the Inns of the Court is to enhance civility, ethics, and professionalism. She’s been involved in the Inns of Court movement since she was an AUSA in San Diego the 1980s. She went on to start the first Inn chapter in Western Pennsylvania and is currently the president of San Diego’s Wallace Chapter. She is also the former President, current Master, and member of the Executive Committee of The Louis M. Welsh Inn of Court.


“It’s an excellent opportunity to meet other practitioners and judges in the legal community,” Judge Crawford said. She encourages anyone with an interest in enhancing their “knowledge of practicing law the right way” to join a local Inn chapter. She added that she “learns something at every meeting.”


She is also proud of her long-term membership in the Lawyers Club and her role on the Board of Governors of the Association of Business Trial Lawyers.


Judge Crawford, a longtime FBA member, is impressed with the role the FBA plays in our national and local legal community and the important educational role it provides to practitioners who practice or aspire to practice in federal court. She praises the San Diego FBA as a “beneficial tool to enhance the practice of law in our community.”

* David Fawcett is a Public Relations Committee Member of the Federal Bar Association’s San Diego Chapter. In his spare time, he is an assistant United States attorney in the Criminal Division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California.


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