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In the law of the United States, a special master is generally a subordinate official appointed by a judge to make sure that judicial orders are actually followed, or in the alternative, to hear evidence on behalf of the judge and make recommendations to the judge as to the disposition of a matter. The special master should not be confused with the traditional common law concept of a master, a judge of the High Court entrusted to deal with summary and administrative matters falling short of a full trial.
In the federal judiciary of the United States, a special master is an adjunct to a federal court. Rule 53 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allows a federal court to appoint a special master, with the consent of the parties, to conduct proceedings and report to the Court.
The role of the special master, who is frequently but not necessarily an attorney, is to supervise those falling under the order of the court to ensure that the court order is being followed and to report on the activities of the entity being supervised in a timely matter to the judge or the judge's designated representatives. Special masters have been controversial in some cases, and are cited by critics as an example of judicial overreach. For example, special masters have at times ordered the expenditure of funds over and above the amount appropriated by a legislative body for the remediation of the situation being examined. Their powers have generally been found to be valid and their remedies upheld by US courts.
The US Supreme Court will normally assign original jurisdiction disputes (cases such as disputes between states that are first heard at the Supreme Court level) to a special master to conduct what amounts to a trial: the taking of evidence and a ruling. The Supreme Court can then assess the master's ruling much as a normal appeals court would, rather than conduct the trial itself. That is necessary as trials in the US almost always involve live testimony, and it would be too unwieldy for nine justices to rule on evidentiary objections in real time.
In United States federal courts, special masters are appointed under Rule 53 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Rule 53 allows for a special master to be appointed only if one of the following exists: (1) the parties consent to the appointment, (2) to hold a trial without a jury or make recommended findings of fact where there is some exceptional condition or accounting or difficult computation of damages, or (3) address pre-trial or post-trial matters that cannot be effectively and timely addressed by a judge or magistrate judge.
Special masters were appointed by U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Whitfield Davidson to investigate allegations of voter fraud on behalf of the 1948 Democratic Party primary campaign for Lyndon B. Johnson to the U.S. Senate. According to Robert A. Caro, the masters would have found that Johnson's 86-vote victory was delivered by hundreds of fraudulent ballots, but the investigation was halted by the U.S. Supreme Court on the grounds that the Democratic Party, not the federal government, had the responsibility over primary elections.
The usage of special masters in matters involving complex electronic discovery (or "eDiscovery") has been promulgated by the Academy of Court Appointed Masters (ACAM).
Cases involving special masters often involve situations in which it has been shown that governmental entities are violating civil rights. High-profile cases in recent years in which special masters have been used include some in which states have been ordered to upgrade their prison facilities, which were held to violate the US Constitution, which bars cruel and unusual punishment and certain state mental hospitals, which have been found so substandard as to violate the rights of their inmates. Summaries of cases involving special masters are published at Cohen's Special Master Case Reporter.
In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft appointed Kenneth Feinberg as special master to oversee the dispensation of an $11 billion victims' compensation fund.