Chuck Schumer, Majority Leader in the US Senate.
Leah Millis | Reuters
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., called on a top US judge in Texas to reform his district’s case assignment rules, he says have allowed plaintiffs to effectively “handpick” their preferred judges.
Schumer’s request to Chief Justice David Godbey of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas came after a heated legal battle over the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of an abortion pill sparked allegations against conservative litigants dealing with “judge buying.”
Several judicial departments in Godbey’s district have only one or two district judges. The rules currently allow plaintiffs to target those civil cases divisions — allowing them “effectively to choose the judge who hears their cases,” Schumer said in a letter to Godbey Thursday.
“Not surprisingly, litigants have taken advantage of these orders to select individual district judges deemed particularly sympathetic to their allegations,” Schumer wrote.
The Senate leader called Texas itself the “most egregious” offender, noting that in 29 lawsuits against the Biden administration, it “has always sued in divisions where case assignment procedures ensure that a designated preferred judge, or one of a handful of preferred judges, does so.” hear the case.”
Congress could “consider additional regulations” if Godbey doesn’t enact reforms, Schumer wrote.
The most prominent example of alleged judge shopping was the dispute over the abortion pill mifepristone. The case was filed in Amarillo, Texas, a single-judge federal division: Matthew Kacsmaryk, an appointee for former President Donald Trump, who has expressed socially conservative views on LGBTQ rights and abortion.
By filing the lawsuit in Amarillo, the anti-abortion groups, who wanted the FDA to revoke the drug’s approval, virtually guaranteed that Kacsmaryk would hear their case. Kacsmaryk ruled in favor of these groups and temporarily suspended approval of the drug. The case quickly landed before the US Supreme Court, which last week ordered the pill to remain widely available while more litigation ensued.
Critics say the strategy of targeting single-judge chambers harms the court’s integrity, as it effectively bypasses the usual process of randomly allocating cases. The random assignment process is designed to “avoid judge buying,” federal courts note.
The chief justice was not immediately available for comment on Schumer’s letter.
“In recent years, the country has seen the downside to allowing plaintiffs to choose their desired judges,” Schumer said in a news release Thursday.
“The result? Messy and flawed decisions on abortion access, LGBTQ+ protection, legal immigration and climate legislation,” he said. “Our country cannot afford to allow these practices to continue unchecked – wherever they occur.”
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In his letter to Godbey, Schumer noted, “Nothing requires the Northern District to so handpick their judges.”
The division of the district into seven divisions is intended to reduce travel times in the sprawling area, which covers more than 96,000 square miles.
“Especially in the case of electronic filing, this division does not have to impair the judicial tasks at all,” argued Schumer. “Other county courts with many rural divisions randomly allocate civil cases among all of their judges, regardless of where the case is filed.”
He noted that the Western District of Texas changed some rules for assigning cases last year “apparently in response to concerns about forum shopping.”
Godbey’s district should make a similar change for all of his civil cases, Schumer wrote.
He acknowledged that courts can set their own rules for assigning cases.
“But if this flexibility continues to allow litigants to select their preferred judges and effectively guarantee their preferred outcomes, Congress will consider more stringent requirements,” he wrote.