WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., is calling on a chief judge in a Texas federal court to make changes to case assignment practices in order to prevent "forum shopping" by litigants who he says are able to effectively hand-pick judges to hear their civil cases.
The current practice has led to "chaotic and flawed rulings on abortion access, LGBTQ+ protections, legal immigration, and climate legislation," Schumer said.
Schumer made the request Thursday in a letter to Chief Judge David Godbey of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, where a judge recently ordered the suspension of the Food and Drug Administration's longtime approval of the key abortion medication mifepristone.
The top Senate Democrat argued that the district court's current practice in assigning cases often results in a single judge hearing cases from their divisions, rather than evenly distributing and randomly assigning the cases. He expressed concern that as a result, plaintiffs who file lawsuits take advantage of that system and are able to effectively choose judges who might rule in their favor. Schumer urged Godbey to change that given his authority to decide how cases are assigned to judges in his district.
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"Even though the Northern District has twelve active judges and another four senior judges who still hear cases, your orders provide that civil cases filed in many divisions are always assigned to a single judge, or to one of just a few," the letter said.
Cases filed in the Amarillo division, Schumer said, are "always assigned to Judge [Matthew] Kacsmaryk," a controversial Donald Trump appointee who issued the abortion medication ruling. The Supreme Court last week blocked the decision from taking effect, allowing the abortion pill to remain on the market while litigation continues in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
"As a result of your recent assignment orders, plaintiffs in your district can now effectively choose the judge who will hear their cases," Schumer wrote to Godbey. "Unsurprisingly, litigants have taken advantage of these orders to hand-pick individual district judges seen as particularly sympathetic to their claims."
The Senate leader pointed to district courts with rural divisions that "divide civil cases randomly between all their judges, regardless of where the case is filed," such as in his home state of New York. The Northern District of New York, which covers upstate and central New York, randomly divides all cases between all of its judges in all divisions, he noted.
"A litigant in the Northern District of New York therefore cannot pick its judge by filing suit in Plattsburgh instead of Utica," he said.
Schumer noted that a federal statute allows each district court to decide how cases are assigned, which provides for flexibility. But he warned, "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."
Schumer didn't elaborate on what those possible requirements might amount to in legislation.