What is a Special Master? Exploring the Role

What is a special master

What is a Special Master? Special Masters have made their way into common discourse with the rise of appointments in cases covered nationally. In fact, the most common known example of a special master comes from the recent trial of Donald J. Trump. Trump’s legal team requested to appoint a special master to review the materials seized in a search warrant in his Mar-a-Lago estate. As the role of a special master has grown, those who are unfamiliar with the role still aren’t clear with it’s purpose and how it differs from a judge or magistrate judge.

This article will outline the role that a special master holds, both in federal court and state court. It will also discuss examples of how a special master may be used in more familiar case law to demonstrate how the role may play out.

The Role of Special Masters

The role of a special master is to tackle specific questions or issues that arise that cannot be effectively and quickly addressed by a district court judge or other judicial officer. A district judge may appoint the special masters on their own or the parties’ behalf, and it is usually a private individual appointed to the role.

Court-appointed masters will follow the outline of their express tasks from the court and report back to the judge’s designated representatives as they work. They will typically work quickly to help resolve portions of the case for the judge to be able to address the rest quickly. Furthermore, this is to the benefit of the parties and the court alike.

In Federal Court

Rule 53 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure governs the use of special masters in federal courts. The federal rule states that a special master may only be appointed by a federal judge if the parties agree to appoint a special master for a specific task. Whereas that task would be to complex for a trial jury given the following:

  • difficult computation required for damages or other technical issues,
  • an exceptional condition arises, or
  • pre-trial or post-trial issues that arise that cannot be timely addressed by the judge in the case.

The Supreme Court will also appoint special masters in cases of original jurisdiction when these conditions arise. Bear in mind that this isn’t a common occurrence, as original jurisdiction is limited by the Constitution. These appointments are made because the logistics of nine justices ruling on evidentiary motions would be difficult to organize and control. Therefore, the federal government and other representatives in front of the court will frequently agree to the appointment of a special master to hear testimony in these cases.

In State Court

Many state courts will also appoint special masters, especially in jurisdictions where the courts are very busy. New York State Court is known for being incredibly overwhelmed by cases and appointing special masters to decide ancillary matters before the court dives into the complex litigation that will follow.

Thus, the New York Courts will often appoint special masters to carry out an express directive handed to them by the judge in civil cases. This helps in complex cases, especially when the issue that the special master is handling needs to be reported on in a timely matter.

Common Uses

There are several common uses of special masters that can help further illustrate how they can help move a case through the courts in a timely matter.

During a Pending Action

In most cases, a special master will be appointed during a pending action. The attorneys or the judge will ask the special master to review documents, look over the evidence, and issue rulings that are the subject of the matter. Occasionally, the appointment of a special master can be strategically utilized to gain a holding that would be favorable to one side.

In the Mar a Lago case against Former President Trump, his attorneys requested a special master to review the evidence and determine if the law supported the executive privilege defense he would like to claim. On the other side, the Justice Department has argued against the appointed special masters in the Trump cases, stating that the determination of whether attorney-client privilege and executive privilege protected the former president was not at issue here.

Post-Trial Matters

In other cases, judges may choose to use a special master to handle post-trial issues. This type of special master may be tasked to ensure the court order is being followed. This can help the court monitor the situation without having to constantly interact with the attorneys or review more documents. The special master is then able to report on the progress to the judge’s designated representatives.


Special masters are a wonderful tool to be strategically utilized for reviewing evidence and helping the judges apply the law or the court order expeditiously.

To learn more about what a special master is, their roles and all things pertaining to dispute resolution, contact ADR Times!

Emily Holland
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