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The term magistrate is used in a variety of systems of governments and laws to refer to a civilian officer who administers the law. In ancient Rome, a magistratus was one of the highest ranking government officers, and possessed both judicial and executive powers. In other parts of the world, such as China, a magistrate was responsible for administration over a particular geographic area. Today, in some jurisdictions, a magistrate is a judicial officer who hears cases in a lower court, and typically deals with more minor or preliminary matters. In civil law systems, a magistrate might be a judge in a superior court; the magistrate's court might have jurisdiction over civil and criminal cases. A related, but not always equivalent, term is chief magistrate, which historically can denote a political and administrative officer.


  • It is certain, higher powers are not to be resisted; but some persons in power may be resisted. The powers are ordained of God; but kings commanding unjust things are not ordained of God to do such things; but to apply this to tyrants, I do not understand. Magistrates in some acts may be guilty of tyranny, and yet retain the power of magistracy; but tyrants cannot be capable of magistracy, nor any one of the scripture-characters of righteous rulers. They cannot retain that which they have forfeited, and which they have overturned; and usurpers cannot retain that which they never had. They may act and enact some things materially just, but they are not formally such as can make them magistrates, no more than some unjust actions can make a magistrate a tyrant. A murderer, saving the life of one and killing another, does not make him no murderer: once a murderer ay a murderer, once a robber ay a robber, till he restore what he hath robbed: so once a tyrant ay a tyrant, till he makes amends for his tyranny, and that will be hard to do. [...] The concrete does specificate the abstract in actuating it, as a magistrate in his exercising government, makes his power to be magistry; a robber, in his robbing, makes his power to be robbery; an usurper in his usurping makes his power to be usurpation; so a tyrant in his tyrannizing, can have no power but tyranny. As the abstract of a magistrate is nothing but magistracy, so the abstract of a tyrant is nothing but tyranny. It is frivolous then to distinguish between a tyrannical power in the concrete, and tyranny in the abstract; the power and the abuse of the power: for he hath no power as a tyrant, but what is abused. [...] It is altogether impertinent to use such a distinction, with application to tyrants or usurpers, as many do in their pleading for the owning of our oppressors; for they have no power, but what is the abuse of power.
Quotes reported in James William Norton-Kyshe, The Dictionary of Legal Quotations (1904), p. 163-164.
  • It is impossible to overrate the importance of keeping the administration of justice by magistrates clear from all suspicion of unfairness.
    • Wills, J., Queen v. Huggins (1895), L. R. 1 Q. B. D. [1895], p. 565.
  • It is necessary for Courts of Justice to hold a strict hand over summary proceedings before magistrates, and I never will agree to relax any of the rules by which they have been bound. Their jurisdiction is of a limited nature, and they must shew that the party was brought within it.
  • It is perfectly plain that either the Crown or any subject may intervene and inform a superior Court that an inferior Court is exceeding its jurisdiction; and it is the duty of the superior Court, when it is so informed, to confine the inferior Court within the limits of its jurisdiction.
    • Sir G. Jessel, M.R., Jacobs v. Brett (1875), L. R. 20 Eq. Ca. 5.
  • Excess of jurisdiction is ground for prohibition.
    • Brett, L.J., Martin v. Mackonochie (1879), L. R. 4 Q. B. D. 755.
  • I do not see to what purpose we exercise a superintendency over all inferior jurisdictions, unless it be to inspect their proceedings, and see whether they are regular or not. I have often heard it said that nothing shall be presumed one way or the other in an inferior jurisdiction.
    • John Pratt, L.C.J., Rex v. Cleg (1722), 1 Stra. 476.
  • We presume a magistrate does right until the contrary appears.
    • Laurence, J., King v. Despard (1798), 7 T. R. 744.
  • It is of infinite importance to the public that the acts of magistrates should not only be substantially good, but also that they should be decorous.
    • Lord Kenyon, C.J., The King v. Sainsbury (1791), 4 T. R. 456.
  • It is the more fit for the Supreme Court to give some certain rule in it that may regulate and guide the judgment of inferior Courts.
    • Sir Robert Atkyns, L.C.B., Trial of Sir Ed. Hales (1686), 11 How. St. Tr. 1213.

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