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Conference Acts to Promote Random Case Assignment

The Judicial Conference of the United States has strengthened the policy governing random case assignment, limiting the ability of litigants to effectively choose judges in certain cases by where they file a lawsuit.

The policy addresses all civil actions that seek to bar or mandate state or federal actions, “whether by declaratory judgment and/or any form of injunctive relief.” In such cases, judges would be assigned through a district-wide random selection process.

“Since 1995, the Judicial Conference has strongly supported the random assignment of cases and the notion that all district judges remain generalists,” said Judge Robert J. Conrad, Jr., secretary of the Conference. “The random case-assignment policy deters judge-shopping and the assignment of cases based on the perceived merits or abilities of a particular judge. It promotes the impartiality of proceedings and bolsters public confidence in the federal Judiciary.”

In most of the nation’s 94 federal district courts, local case assignment plans facilitate the random selection of judges. Some plans assign cases to a judge in the division of the court where the case is filed. In divisions where only a single judge sits, these rules have made it possible for a litigant to pre-select that judge by filing in that division. 

In a November 2021 letter, Senator Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), and Patrick Leahy, a Vermont senator who since has retired, raised concerns about a concentration of patent cases filed in single-judge divisions. 

Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., referenced this letter in his 2021 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary, calling for a study of judicial assignment practices in patent cases.

“Senators from both sides of the aisle have expressed concern that case assignment procedures … might, in effect, enable the plaintiff to select a particular judge to hear a case,” Roberts said. During the patent-case study, the Court Administration and Case Management Committee (CACM) determined that similar issues might occur in bankruptcy and other types of civil litigation. Public debate grew when several highly controversial lawsuits, seeking nationwide injunctions against federal government policies, were filed in single-judge court divisions.

In submitting the proposed policy to the Judicial Conference, the CACM Committee said that some local case assignment plans risked creating an appearance of “judge shopping.” The committee also noted that the value of trying a civil case in the nearest court division becomes less important when the impact of a ruling might be felt statewide or even nationally.

The amended policy applies to cases involving state or federal laws, rules, regulations, policies, or executive branch orders. District courts may continue to assign cases to a single-judge division when they do not seek to bar or mandate state or federal actions, whether by declaratory judgment and/or any form of injunctive relief.

In addition to the Judiciary policy, the CACM committee will disseminate guidance to all district courts regarding civil case assignment.

The 26-member Judicial Conference is the policy-making body for the federal court system. By statute, the Chief Justice of the United States serves as its presiding officer and its members are the chief judges of the 13 courts of appeals, a district judge from each of the 12 geographic circuits, and the chief judge of the Court of International Trade.

The Conference convenes twice a year to consider administrative and policy issues affecting the court system.

Related Topics: Judicial Conference of the United States