Civil Procedure

ABA asks federal judiciary to drop term 'court-appointed master,' citing negative connotations

  • Print


ABA President Mary Smith wrote a letter asking the federal judiciary to drop the term “court-appointed master” from the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure because it is “a very poor term and a very poor description.” (Photo courtesy of the Chicago Bar Association)

The ABA is asking the federal judiciary to drop the term “court-appointed master” from the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure because it is “a very poor term and a very poor description.”

In a letter to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, ABA President Mary Smith said the term should be replaced with “court-appointed neutral” in procedural and other rules that reference appointments of a “master.”

Reuters, which has a story, links to the Feb. 12 letter.

“Although no one suggests that the use of ‘master’ in court settings was intended to have a negative meaning, ‘master’ carries an extremely negative connotation in situations involving power relationships,” Smith wrote. “It refers to one (male) person who has control or authority over another; and the most obvious example of that is slavery.”

The rule change may be considered by judiciary’s Advisory Committee on Civil Rules at its April 9 meeting, according to Reuters.

Smith’s letter reflects policy adopted in August 2023 at the ABA Annual Meeting by the ABA House of Delegates in Resolution 516. It supports legislative and rule changes to replace the terms “master” and “court-appointed master” with “court-appointed neutral.”

Smith’s letter refers to states that have already made the change and groups that are also grappling with the issue.

The states of Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania have changed court rules to substitute a different term for “masters,” Smith said.

The American Arbitration Association has stopped using the term “master” for neutrals who assist in arbitration. The ABA Judicial Division’s Lawyers Conference has changed the name of a “Special Masters Committee” to a “Court-Appointed Neutrals Committee.”

And the ABA has renamed guidelines on appointment and use of special masters to instead reference “court-appointed neutrals.”

Smith also cited nonlegal examples. Many real estate professionals no longer use the term “‘master’ bedroom.” The wine industry is considering dropping the word “master” from “master sommelier.” Electrical and software engineers are discussing ending the use of “master” and “slave” to refer to devices that control another.

Smith also said “court-appointed neutral” better describes a professional appointed as a specific officer to help with specific functions in litigation.

Smith noted that the federal procedural rules do not define the word “master” and said there should be a definition if Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 53 is changed to adopt the “court-appointed neutral” term. She also recommended including a “carve-out” to make clear when the appointments of people such as monitors and referees are not subject to Rule 53 requirements.

The ABA has defined “court-appointed neutral” in a model rule that can be adopted by state, local, territorial and tribal courts.

It defines a court-appointed neutral as “a disinterested professional appointed as an adjunct special officer appointment to assist a court in its case-management, adjudicative or post-resolution responsibilities.”

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.