Pulling the “For Sale” Sign: Federal Judiciary Attempts to Curb Judge Shopping

March 27, 2024

Venue shopping is as American as apple pie. Litigants have long endeavored to select advantageous courts in jurisdictions with favorable laws, procedures, or jury pools to maximize their chances of success. Even so, filing a case in a particular venue would normally subject a litigant to a random selection of several judges that could hear the case, providing some sense of fairness to the process.

Considering this, litigants have become savvier by finding and selecting courts that have only one judge with well-known viewpoints to hear their case, a tactic known as “judge shopping.”

Scrutiny on Judge Shopping

Judge shopping has come under scrutiny following recent decisions in high-profile and sometimes politically motivated cases, including those seeking to block administrative actions by past and current Presidents. As noted by Chief Judge Terry Doughty of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana:

“When President Trump was president everything was being filed in California and Hawaii and now with President Biden president, they’re being filed in Texas and Louisiana.”

So, the Federal Judiciary is seeking to rein in the shopping spree with a new policy.

Objectives of the Policy

The new policy announced by the Judicial Conference of the United States aims to curtail “judge shopping” in federal courts. This policy targets rules in some federal courts that have previously allowed litigants to choose which judge will hear their case, potentially leading to biased outcomes. Under the new policy:

  1. Plaintiffs seeking to challenge federal or state policies will no longer be allowed to handpick a specific judge for their case.
  2. Cases will be randomly assigned among a larger pool of judges, reducing the ability to strategically choose a sympathetic judge.
  3. This change is intended to prevent the appearance of bias and ensure that federal and state policies are not disproportionately influenced by the views of a single judge.

This recent announcement has sparked both praise and criticism, but there are obvious legitimate reasons to maintain impartiality within the Federal Judiciary.

Addressing Bias and Promoting Impartiality

One of the primary objectives of the new policy is to prevent litigants from picking specific judges who may be perceived as sympathetic to their cause. By randomly assigning cases among a larger pool of judges, the policy seeks to reduce the potential for biased outcomes and ensure the impartial administration of justice. As stated above, this approach is particularly important in cases involving challenges to federal policies, and because of the rise of national injunctions – parties tend to concentrate litigation in specific jurisdictions and thus the potential for forum manipulation.

Promoting Public Confidence in the Judiciary

Public confidence in the judiciary hinges on perceptions of fairness, impartiality, and transparency. When litigants are permitted to “judge shop,” it undermines the impartiality and integrity of the entire judicial process by unfairly advantaging the selecting party out of the gate. By removing the perception of undue influence or bias in case assignments, the judiciary avoids the perception of a political lean, which can contribute to a more credible and respected judiciary by the public at large.

Opposition to the Policy

Some have raised objections to the new policy, arguing that it exceeds the authority of the Judicial Conference, infringes upon the discretion of individual federal district courts in assigning cases, and that it was developed with political motivations.

However, one of the overarching roles of the Judicial Conference is to establish policies and procedures that enhance the efficiency and fairness of the federal court system. While judicial discretion by individual courts and judges is important, it is equally vital to ensure fairness and impartiality in adjudicating legal disputes. Finally, the practice of “judge shopping” has occurred by both sides of the political aisle, and the policy instituted by the non-partisan Judicial Conference seeks to remove the current stain of political motivation from the judicial system by curtailing the practice and enhance public confidence in the judiciary.

Next Steps

While acknowledging the importance of judicial discretion, it is equally crucial to recognize the need for uniformity and consistency in case assignments across federal courts. The policy to randomize case assignments aims to prevent the manipulation of the judicial process and ensure fairness and impartiality in adjudicating legal disputes. By establishing standardized procedures, the Judicial Conference promotes transparency and accountability while safeguarding against potential abuses of judicial discretion.

The new policy directed at curtailing “judge shopping” represents a step towards promoting fairness and impartiality in the judicial process at the federal level in an effort to enhance public confidence in the legal system. For assistance navigating these issues, please contact KJK attorneys Robert E. Zulandt, III (REZ@kjk.com; 216.736.7259), Nathan Studeny (NFS@kjk.com; 216.736.7284), or any of KJK’s litigators.