Schumer Urges End to Single-Judge Divisions in Texas
WASHINGTON — Senator Chuck Schumer urged the chief judge of the Northern District of Texas on Thursday to end an assignment system for the courts there that he said effectively allowed parties to pick their judge.
In a letter sent on Thursday afternoon to Chief Judge David C. Godbey, Mr. Schumer, the majority leader, signaled that Congress may step in if the federal courts do not make swift changes.
“As a result of your recent assignment orders, plaintiffs in your district can now effectively choose the judge who will hear their cases,” Mr. Schumer said. “Unsurprisingly, litigants have taken advantage of these orders to handpick individual district judges seen as particularly sympathetic to their claims.”
At more than 96,000 square miles, the Northern District of Texas is one of the largest districts in the country and has an unusual case assignment system. A handful of judges, several appointed by President Donald J. Trump, are each assigned to a single division or hear cases split between just two judges, meaning that they hear most, if not all, cases filed in a particular court. Some of the highest-profile cases, many with wide-ranging implications for national policy, have gone through those courts, including ones involving health care, L.G.B.T.Q. rights and immigration.
If the district failed to act, Congress may “consider more prescriptive requirements,” Mr. Schumer said.
The recent fight over a widely used abortion pill, mifepristone, shows how consequential filing in one of these single-judge divisions can be.
Last fall, an umbrella group of medical organizations and four doctors who oppose abortion filed a lawsuit in the Amarillo division of the Northern District of Texas challenging the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the drug.
Filing in Amarillo, a midsize city in the Texas Panhandle, ensured the case would come before the lone federal judge who hears civil cases there: Matthew J. Kacsmaryk, a Trump appointee and a longtime opponent of abortion.
After Judge Kacsmaryk issued a preliminary ruling this month suspending the F.D.A.’s approval of the pill more than two decades ago, the case went to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, then to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court paused any change in availability of the pill while an appeal winds its way through the system.
In his letter to Judge Godbey, an appointee of President George W. Bush, Mr. Schumer referred to the abortion pill case, but he also singled out the Texas attorney general’s office as the “most egregious example” of judge-shopping.
Texas has sued the Biden administration at least 29 times in Federal District Court, regularly filing cases in single-judge divisions, including seven in Amarillo.
Judge-shopping, the practice in which parties file a case in front of a sympathetic judge in the hopes of an outcome favorable to them, is not new and is not unique to conservatives. But Mr. Schumer said other federal court districts spread over large geographic areas, including the Northern District of New York and the Western District of Missouri, randomly assign cases to judges, no matter where they are filed.
He also pointed to a recent change in Texas courts after concerns about judge-shopping. Judge Alan Albright of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas had come under criticism by some for appearing overly friendly to litigants who make money by bringing patent suits. He is accused of encouraging such plaintiffs to file in his court, where he has heard nearly a quarter of all pending patent cases in the country.
Responding to those concerns, the chief judge for that district ordered that new patent cases filed in Judge Albright’s court be split among 12 judges in the area.