Judicial Conference Adjusts ‘Judge Shopping’ Policy

Empty Judge's Chair
Empty Judge's Chair | Image by Salivanchuk Semen/Shutterstock

The Judicial Conference of the United States announced that it has adjusted the policy regarding random case assignments for judges to help avoid the potential for “judge shopping” in certain districts.

The conference is the “national policymaking body for the federal courts” and gathers twice a year to evaluate any potential changes needed within the court system.

A previous policy about random judge assignment stated that the assigned judge would come from judges within the division where the lawsuit was filed despite certain divisions only having one judge available.

As a result, plaintiffs filing a lawsuit could potentially go “judge shopping” by filing in a district where there was only one judge, increasing the likelihood that they would receive a ruling in their favor.

The new policy will apply to all civil lawsuits that attempt to block a mandate or law “whether by declaratory judgment and/or any form of injunctive relief,” according to a statement from the Judicial Conference.

Moving forward, judges will be assigned to these cases through a district-wide random selection process.

The Judicial Conference statement about the change references a 2021 letter from Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) and former Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), which “raised concerns about a concentration of patent cases filed in single-judge divisions.”

Chief Justice John Roberts addressed the letter in his 2021 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary, writing that senators from “both sides of the aisle” have begun to present concerns that the previous policy could “enable the plaintiff to select a particular judge to hear a case.”

Roberts stated in his report that fixing the purported issue could prove to be “important to public confidence in the courts,” adding that the Committee on Court Administration and Case Management would then review concerns.

Attorney General Ken Paxton has reportedly utilized this procedure multiple times in an attempt to obtain favorable rulings, with one example coming from a 2022 abortion pill lawsuit.

The attorney general allegedly filed the lawsuit in Amarillo so that U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, who former President Donald Trump appointed, could hear a case about why a particular abortion pill should be banned in the Lone Star State, per the Houston Chronicle.

Kacsmaryk heard the case since he was the only judge in the district and ruled in favor of Texas. The case has since been appealed multiple times and will be heard by the Supreme Court later this month.

The new mandate from the Judicial Conference would now require the case to be randomly assigned, making it much less likely that the plaintiff would get a preferred judge, per the Houston Chronicle.

Judge Robert Conrad Jr., the secretary of the Judicial Conference, said that the conference “has strongly supported the random assignment of cases and the notion that all district judges remain generalists.”

“The random case-assignment policy deters judge-shopping and the assignment of cases based on the perceived merits or abilities of a particular judge. It promotes the impartiality of proceedings and bolsters public confidence in the federal Judiciary,” he added.

Although the conference has stated that the policy change would improve confidence in the courts, lawmakers have split opinions on the adjustment.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said in a statement that he was proud the conference chose to “level the playing field and bring more justice back into the justice system by finally putting an end to unscrupulous plaintiffs having the ability to choose their judge.”

“This anti-democratic practice has eroded Americans’ faith in the judicial system and undermined the rule of law. This new rule rebalances our court system and will go a long way to restoring public confidence in judicial rulings.”

On the other hand, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said the conference “took the bait” by changing the rule, arguing that it was an “unforced error by the Judicial Conference,” per NBC News. He added that he hopes the conference will reconsider its decision.

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