June 3, 2023

WASHINGTON — Senator Chuck Schumer on Thursday urged the chief justice of the Northern District of Texas to end a court allocation system there that he said effectively allowed parties to choose their judge.

In a letter sent Thursday afternoon to Chief Justice David C. Godbey, Mr. Schumer, the Majority Leader, said Congress could intervene if federal courts don’t make changes quickly.

“As a result of your recent allocation orders, plaintiffs in your district can now effectively choose the judge who will hear their cases,” Mr Schumer said. “It is not surprising that litigants have taken advantage of these orders to single out individual district judges who are considered particularly sympathetic to their claims.”

At over 96,000 square miles, the Northern District of Texas is one of the largest districts in the country and has an unusual case allocation 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 they hear most, if not all, cases filed in a given court. Some of the most high-profile cases, many with far-reaching implications for national policy, have gone through those courts, including cases related to health care, LGBTQ rights, and immigration.

If the district does nothing, Congress may “consider more prescriptive requirements,” Mr. Schumer said.

The recent battle over a commonly used abortion pill, mifepristone, shows just how drastic filing with one of these singular departments can be.

Last fall, an umbrella group of medical organizations and four anti-abortion doctors filed a lawsuit in the Amarillo Division of the Northern District of Texas challenging the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the drug.

The filing in Amarillo, a midsize city in the Texas Panhandle, ensured the case would go to the only federal judge who hears civil cases there: Matthew J. Kacsmaryk, a Trump appointee and longtime opponent of abortion.

After Judge Kacsmaryk this month issued a preliminary ruling suspending FDA approval of the pill more than two decades ago, the case went to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans and then to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has paused any change to the pill’s availability as an appeal works 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 also called the Texas attorney general’s office the “most egregious example” of judge-shopping.

Texas has sued the Biden administration in Federal District Court at least 29 times, and has regularly filed cases in single trial courts, including seven in Amarillo.

Judge-shopping, the practice of parties filing a case before a sympathetic judge hoping for a favorable outcome, is not new and not unique to conservatives. But Mr. Schumer said other federal courts spanning wide geographic areas, including the Northern District of New York and the Western District of Missouri, arbitrarily assign cases to judges regardless of where they are filed.

He also pointed to a recent change in Texas courts following concerns about court shopping. Judge Alan Albright of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas had been criticized by some for appearing overly friendly to litigants who make money from patent litigation. He is accused of encouraging such plaintiffs to apply to his court, where he has heard nearly a quarter of all pending patent cases in the country.

In response to those concerns, that district’s chief justice ordered that new patent cases filed in Judge Albright’s court be divided among 12 area judges.