If you want to start a lawsuit in a federal court, you file a complaint with the clerk of the court. It will cost you $350. But what if you want your case to be handled by a sympathetic judge? That can be more complicated. This is what the federal courts website says:
Judge assignment methods vary. The basic considerations in making assignments are to assure equitable distribution of caseloads and avoid judge shopping.
Shopping for a judge? That means trying to get your case in front of the judge or judges you want.
By statute, the chief judge of each district court has the responsibility to enforce the court’s rules and orders on case assignments. Each court has a written plan or system for assigning cases. The majority of courts use some variation of a random drawing. One simple method is to rotate the names of available judges. At times judges having special expertise can be assigned cases by type…. Sometimes cases may be assigned based on geographical considerations.
But if you want to avoid those complications and be almost 100% certain of winning your case, there’s an easy way. From Stephen Vladek’s “Don’t Let Republican Judge Shoppers Thwart the Will of Voters” for the New York Times:
For the 26th time in two years, Ken Paxton, Texas’ attorney general, recently filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging a Biden administration policy. The suit, which seeks to wipe out a new Labor Department rule…, wasn’t filed in Austin, the state capital, or in Dallas, where the Labor Department’s regional offices are, or anywhere else with a logical connection to the dispute.
It was filed in Amarillo. Why Amarillo? By filing there, Mr. Paxton had a 100 percent chance of having the case assigned to Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk — appointed to the bench by President [Orange Menace] in 2019 and a former deputy general counsel to the First Liberty Institute, which frequently litigates religious liberty cases before the Supreme Court.
Judge Kacsmaryk is the Republican proponent of forced birth who recently ruled that no American woman should be allowed to end an early unwanted pregnancy by taking a pill. The group that filed the lawsuit wanted him to hear their case so they filed it in Amarillo, Texas, where Kacsmaryk is the only federal judge. They knew he’d be on their side, but they also knew something else. He would issue a nationwide injunction, not one limited to the panhandle of Texas, which he’s responsible for.
Mr. Vladeck explains why a plaintiff like the ironically-named “Alliance Defending Freedom” was able to get away with this assault on women’s freedom:
For decades, Congress has split up many of the 94 federal district courts into smaller divisions and has left it to each district court to decide how to divvy up cases among its divisions. Texas’ federal courts, in turn, have distributed their judges unevenly. Of the 27 divisions in Texas’ four district courts, nine have a single judge; 10 others have only two.
Although other states require judges to move around from time to time to avoid judge shopping, Texas doesn’t. Thus, any new suit filed in Amarillo is sure to go to Judge Kacsmaryk, any new suit filed in Wichita Falls goes to Judge Reed O’Connor, and any new suit filed in Victoria goes to Judge Drew Tipton.
O’Connor is the Orange Menace-appointed clown who ruled that the entire Affordable Care Act was unconstitutional in 2018 and most recently ruled “against a part of the law that promises free preventive services to every American who has private health insurance” (Washington Post). Tipton is the Orange Menace-appointed clown who decided Biden couldn’t issue a 100-day moratorium on deportations and more recently “threw out a Department of Homeland Security policy that limits who immigration authorities can arrest and deport” (NPR).
These rulings are sometimes overturned, either by the Republican-heavy 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, or the Republican-heavy Supreme Court in Washington, but not often enough. Even when they’re eventually overturned, they affect people’s lives in the meantime. (Did you know that the last time there were more Democrats than Republicans on the Supreme Court was in August 1969, before we landed on the moon?)
Can something be done to end this blatant right-wing manipulation of the federal courts? In theory, Congress could manage the situation. But how likely is it that Republicans in Congress would agree to prohibit this kind of judge shopping that serves their political interests so well?
Aside from electing more Democrats, one thing we might do is convince a certain Your Honor to do something honorable. We can remind her that “the basic considerations in making [judicial] assignments are to assure equitable distribution of caseloads and avoid judge shopping”.
The federal court system is geographically divided into 12 circuits. The 5th Circuit handles cases filed in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. The chief judge of the 5th Circuit is Priscilla Richman. Her duties include the the assignment of judges and the control of court calendars. If she chose to, she could make sure that cases like the ones Kacsmaryk, O’Connor and Tipton got, which had no good reasons to be filed in Amarillo, Witchita Falls or Victoria, Texas — aside from blatant judge shopping — were randomly assigned to one of the many judges in her circuit.
Her mailing address is:
Chief Judge Priscilla Richman
Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
600 Camp Street
New Orleans, LA 70130
Just like gerrymandering, which allows politicians to choose their voters, judge shopping allows lawyers to choose their judges. It’s not how the system is supposed to work. Judge Richman should be reminded of that (yeah, she’s another Republican, but at least she wasn’t appointed by the Orange Menace).
PS: For more on this issue, see “How Right Wing Judges in Texas Are Erasing Americans’ Rights Everywhere” by Michael Hiltzik for the Los Angeles Times.
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