Updated: Nov 10, 2022
On September 1, 2022, the Hon. Bernard G. Skomal became the Presiding Magistrate Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California. Judge Skomal takes over the position from the Honorable William V. Gallo, who served as Presiding Magistrate Judge since September 1, 2020.
Presiding Magistrate Judge Skomal
Under General Order 162-E, the Presiding Magistrate Judge is the judge who is senior in appointment and meets certain age and experience criteria. In addition to the judge’s normal duties, the Presiding Magistrate Judge is responsible for serving as a liaison with the Chief District Judge and handling various other matters.
Judge Skomal is a former criminal defense lawyer who has worked at the Federal Defenders of San Diego and in private practice, where he specialized in federal and state criminal defense. Judge Skomal became a magistrate judge in April 2010.
The San Diego FBA had the opportunity to ask Judge Skomal about what the Presiding Magistrate Judge position entails, being a magistrate judge, and his advice to attorneys who may appear in front of him.
Interview with Judge Skomal
What does a Presiding Magistrate Judge do and how does one become the Presiding Magistrate Judge?
The position is assigned based on seniority. As the Presiding Magistrate Judge, I am in charge of various administrative tasks. For example, I am essentially the spokesperson for the magistrate judges in this district. As such, I receive requests to speak at panels and conferences, attend events, and meet with other Presiding Magistrate Judges within the circuit. Also, if the Southern District hires any new magistrate judges, I am responsible for some of their training and the initial assignment of their cases. I also am in charge of setting the schedule for magistrate judge duty, and I assist in assigning attorneys to the CJA Appellate Panel. Keep in mind that the Presiding Magistrate Judge also has a regular civil and criminal caseload, so we keep busy.
What is your favorite part of being a magistrate judge?
The settlement conferences. These conferences allow me to interact with the parties and attorneys and use my trial skills and plea-bargaining skills that I used often as a criminal defense attorney before I became a judge. I enjoy learning about each case and the facts and allegations and then discussing those with each side. Prior to the pandemic, I held every settlement conference in person, which I enjoyed. We switched to video conferencing during the pandemic. While I enjoy meeting the parties and attorneys in person, using video conferencing does allow me the flexibility to schedule multiple conferences in each case.
Do you have any advice to attorneys appearing in front of you?
Be prepared. I spend a lot of time reading every filing, exhibit, and pleading. I’d like every attorney to know them better than I do. The attorneys are required to know every facet of their case including the elements of each cause of action. Be prepared to discuss the facts in your case and the leading case law on the legal issues.
What do you look for in a law clerk?
A law clerk for any magistrate judge needs to be not only a fantastic writer and researcher, but also incredibly organized. Magistrate judges in our district set scheduling orders and ENE conferences, so their clerks have to stay on top of deadlines and meetings. My clerks also often interact with the parties on the phone because my chamber rules require the parties to call my chambers regarding a discovery dispute, so I look for someone who is articulate and personable. It’s a given that a great law clerk is also able to write reasoned and unbiased drafts and be willing to spend the time researching the issues.
Do you have any advice to someone who wants to be a magistrate judge in this district?
I don’t have any say in choosing new magistrate judges, but my advice to anyone hoping to be considered is to perfect your skills at settling cases and resolving disputes. You need to be able to think on your feet and to discuss and reason with the parties over each issue. I found my prior trial experience to be helpful because being a trial attorney required me to interact daily with opposing counsel, court clerks, and clients, and to understand everyone’s point of view. (Editor’s Note: If you would like to learn more about applying to become a U.S. Magistrate Judge, the San Diego FBA has free presentation available to view here.)