In some Minnesota courts, family law cases may be assigned to either a judge or a referee.  This is especially the case in the Second Judicial District (Ramsey County) and the Fourth Judicial District (Hennepin County). Although appearing before a referee tends to be similar to appearing before a judge, there are subtle differences that distinguish the two.

Judges & Referees – What’s the Difference?

Under the Minnesota Rules of Civil Procedure, a referee may be appointed for any action by the chief judge in each judicial district.  Generally, the chief judge only appoints individuals who are learned in the area of law to which they are appointed (i.e. family, probate, juvenile, or other special court). In comparison, judges are either chosen in nonpartisan elections or appointed by the Governor of Minnesota, but only if there is a judicial vacancy.

In general, referees do not have the authority to issue orders under Minnesota Law.  Instead, they are required to make recommended findings and orders, which are then confirmed and signed off on by a district court judge. Due to most referees’ experience and knowledge of the law, judges usually adopt a referee’s order with little, if any, change.

Lastly, district courts will sometimes “block” referees to certain types of cases in order to manage caseloads more effectively.  In the Hennepin County Family Court, the judges are generally assigned to the domestic abuse calendar, whereas referees are assigned to the County Attorney calendars involving paternity adjudications and child support contempt actions.

Removal of a Family Law Judge vs. a Referee

Another key distinction is the removal of a judge verses the removal of a referee.  Under Minnesota Law, a party may remove all referees from his or her case without “cause” (example: proof of bias or prejudice) within 10 days of receiving a notice of the referee’s assignment to the case.  Generally, a removal of a judge requires such “cause.”

Again, although appearing before a judge and referee has subtle differences, you should always treat both with the utmost respect in a family court proceeding.