U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Leah Millis | Reuters
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., urged a top U.S. judge in Texas to reform his district’s case-assignment rules that he says have allowed plaintiffs to effectively “hand-pick” their preferred judges.
Schumer’s demand to Chief Judge David Godbey of 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 accusations of conservative litigants engaging in “judge shopping.”
Multiple court divisions in Godbey’s district have just 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 will hear their cases,” Schumer said Thursday in a letter to Godbey.
“Unsurprisingly, litigants have taken advantage of these orders to hand-pick individual district judges seen as particularly sympathetic to their claims,” 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 particular preferred judge or one of a handful of preferred judges will hear the case.”
Congress may “consider more prescriptive requirements” if Godbey does not enact reforms, Schumer wrote.
The most prominent recent example of alleged judge shopping came in the clash 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 socially conservative views on LGBTQ rights and abortion.
By filing the lawsuit in Amarillo, the anti-abortion groups seeking to cancel the FDA’s approval of the drug virtually guaranteed Kacsmaryk would hear their case. Kacsmaryk ruled in favor of those groups, temporarily suspending the drug’s approval. The case quickly ascended to the U.S. Supreme Court, which last week ordered that the pill remain broadly available as further litigation plays out.
Critics say the strategy of targeting single-judge divisions harms the integrity of the court, as it effectively bypasses the usual process of having cases assigned randomly. The random-assignment process is intended to “avoid judge shopping,” federal courts note.
The chief judge could not immediately be reached for comment on Schumer’s letter.
“In the past few years, the country has seen the downside of allowing plaintiffs to hand-pick their desired judges,” Schumer said in a press release Thursday.
“The result? Chaotic and flawed rulings on abortion access, LGBTQ+ protections, legal immigration, and climate legislation,” he said. “Our country cannot afford to let these practices continue unchecked – wherever they may occur.”
In his letter to Godbey, Schumer noted, “Nothing requires the Northern District to let plaintiffs hand-pick their judges like this.”
The district’s split into seven divisions is intended to reduce travel times in the sprawling area, which encompasses more than 96,000 square miles.
“Particularly with electronic filing, that division does not need to affect judicial assignments at all,” Schumer argued. “Other district courts with many rural divisions divide civil cases randomly between 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 should make a similar change for all its civil cases, Schumer wrote.
He conceded that courts can set their own rules for how they assign cases.
“But if that flexibility continues to allow litigants to hand-pick their preferred judges and effectively guarantee their preferred outcomes, Congress will consider more prescriptive requirements,” he wrote.