The U.S. Congress doesn’t generally interfere with how federal courts run their affairs. But late last week, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer signaled he’d be willing to make an exception.
The New York Democrat sent a letter to Judge David Godbey, chief judge for the federal Northern District of Texas.
The Northern District is rare in the way it assigns cases. Most federal districts do so randomly. That way, plaintiffs aren’t guaranteed a judge they think will be sympathetic. But the Northern District assigns cases geographically. Certain judges hear all the cases brought in certain places.
In his letter to Judge Godbey, Sen. Schumer said that this allowed parties to effectively shop for the most favorable judge possible and if the district didn’t change its policy, Congress might.
Kathryn Rubino, senior editor at the legal news and commentary site Above the Law, spoke to Texas Standard about the policy’s broader ripple effects. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: Why do you think New York senator Schumer cares so much about what’s happening in the Northern District of Texas?
Kathryn Rubino: Well, it has most to do with Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk. He is the only judge in the Amarillo courthouse and he gets a disproportionate amount of cases that are trying to challenge Biden-era policies. He is famously the judge that had the abortion pill case and said that there should be an injunction and stopping the production and access to the abortion pill.
Is there evidence that there was judge shopping in the background of that abortion pill case – mifepristone ban effectively issued by the judge?
It certainly seems likely, you know, sort of without having someone saying explicitly there’s as much evidence as we can have. Matthew Kacsmaryk had previously, before he was appointed and confirmed as a federal judge, worked on anti-abortion issues, was an activist in that area. So I think that if any plaintiff was looking to have this kind of a ruling, this is exactly where they would go.
Well, I mentioned that many federal court districts assign cases randomly. Could you say more about the custom and just how predominant it is to have randomly-assigned judges as opposed to what they do in the Northern District of Texas?
Yeah. Most courthouses, you know, kind of spin the wheel. When you file a piece of litigation, you put your case in and you don’t know which judge you’re going to get. In Texas, because of this sort of geographic assignment system, anything that gets filed in the Amarillo courthouse is going directly to Judge Kacsmaryk. Historically, the Western District of Texas used to do this, as well. And that became a whole issue when all of the intellectual property cases were primarily going to Judge Albright.
These are the patent trials. Yes, I remember that.
Mm hmm. And they changed it because there were so many cases being sent to this one judge because plaintiffs had an incentive to select their judge ahead of time. So now they are randomly assigned because of this issue.
Well, now, if you compare the Northern District with other federal district courts, does the Northern District in Texas have a disproportionate impact on policy in the U.S. because of the way it assigns cases?
Absolutely. Obviously, we’ve already talked about the abortion pill case, but there have also been immigration cases, ESG cases that have gone through Judge Kacsmaryk – he’s issued nationwide injunctions as a result of that. In addition to Sen. Schumer writing this letter about it, also, Sen. Mazie Hirono has also proposed legislation that would say that if any cases had proposed nationwide injunctions, they would have to go through the district court in the District of Columbia. So there is other people who are upset about this and the way that one judge in Amarillo, Texas, has an impact on the entire nation is incredibly problematic.
With Sen. Schumer saying Congress may address this matter if the district itself does not, what do you see as the outcome or possible options for change?
I think at this point it’s a lot of posturing. I think that with Congress being split between the two parties, between the House and the Senate, it’s unlikely that any legislation is going to be passed as long as that remains true. But I do think that continually making it an issue and trying to hold courts’ feet to the fire makes a lot of sense for the Democrats.