US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Leah Millis | Reuters
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., urged a top U.S. judge in Texas to reform his district’s case assignment rules that he says allowed plaintiffs to effectively “choose” their preferred judges.
Schumer’s request to Chief Judge David Godbey of the US District Court for the Northern District of Texas comes after a heated legal battle over the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of an abortion pill has drawn accusations from conservative litigants. who engages in “judge shopping.”
There are multiple divisions of the Godbey district court only one or two district judges. The rules currently allow for plaintiffs to target those divisions for civil cases — letting them “effectively choose the judge who hears their cases,” Schumer said Thursday in a letter to Godbey.
“Not surprisingly, litigants have taken advantage of these orders to select individual district judges who appear to be particularly sympathetic to their claims,” Schumer wrote.
The Senate leader himself called Texas the “most egregious” offender, noting that of the 29 lawsuits against the Biden administration, it has “always been sued in divisions where case assignment procedures ensure that a particular preferred judge or one of a small number of preferred judges will hear the case.”
Congress may “consider more stringent requirements” if Godbey doesn’t enact reforms, Schumer wrote.
The most prominent recent example of alleged judge shopping came in the fight over the abortion pill mifepristone. The case was filed in Amarillo, Texas, a federal court division with just one judge: Matthew Kacsmaryk, an appointee of former President Donald Trump who has expressed a socially conservative view on LGBTQ rights and abortion.
By filing the lawsuit in Amarillo, anti-abortion groups seeking to overturn the FDA’s approval of the drug almost guaranteed Kacsmaryk would have their case heard. Kacsmaryk ruled in favor of those groups, temporarily suspending the drug’s approval. The case quickly went up to the US Supreme Court, which last week ordered that the pill remain widely available while further litigation plays out.
Critics say the strategy of targeting single-judge divisions harms the integrity of the court, as it effectively bypasses the standard process of having cases assigned randomly. The random assignment process is intended to “avoid judge shopping,” federal courts note.
The chief justice could not immediately be reached for comment on Schumer’s letter.
“Over the past few years, the country has seen the downside of allowing plaintiffs to choose the judges they want,” Schumer said in a statement Thursday.
“The result? Chaotic and flawed decisions about abortion access, LGBTQ+ protections, legal immigration, and climate legislation,” he said. “Our country cannot afford to allow these practices to continue unchecked – wherever they may be.”
In his letter to Godbey, Schumer noted, “There is no need for the Northern District to let plaintiffs choose their judges like this.”
The division of the district into seven divisions is intended to reduce travel times over the vast area, which covers more than 96,000 square miles.
“Particularly in electronic filing, that division doesn’t necessarily affect judicial assignments,” Schumer said. “Other district courts with multiple rural divisions randomly apportion civil cases to all their judges, regardless of where the case is filed.”
He noted that the Western District of Texas changed some case assignment rules last year, “apparently in response to forum-shopping concerns.”
Godbey’s district must make a similar change for all its civil cases, Schumer wrote.
He acknowledged that courts can set their own rules for how they assign cases.
“But if that flexibility continues to allow litigants to choose their preferred judges and effectively guarantee their preferred results, Congress will consider more prescriptive requirements,” he wrote.