With an eye on Amarillo courthouse, US senators push to stop federal judge shopping

By Matthew Choi, The Texas Tribune

WASHINGTON U.S. Senate leaders introduced legislation to end “judge shopping” — a practice that’s made a federal courthouse in Amarillo with a Trump-appointed judge a destination for conservative litigants challenging Biden administration policies.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer introduced the “End Judge Shopping Act” on Wednesday, which would require judges to be randomly assigned to civil cases that could have state- or nation-wide consequences. The bill codifies a similar rule issued by the Judicial Conference of the United States last month to combat judge shopping. The conference is a congressionally created body that oversees the administration of federal courts.

David Godbey, chief judge for the Northern District of Texas, wrote to Schumer earlier this month saying that the judges in his district would not adhere to the Judiciary Conference’s rule. Schumer, in response, issued a statement that “the Senate will consider legislative options that put an end to this misguided practice.”

Texas has several judicial divisions with just one federal judge, meaning that litigants who file suit in that division can usually predict who their case will be assigned to. Conservative plaintiffs suing the Biden administration have flocked to Amarillo, where U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk is the only sitting judge, and has handed down rulings in their favor.

Their cases have touched issues ranging from abortion medication and immigration to LGBTQ worker protections.

A handful of Republican senators protested the Judicial Conference rule, arguing that it’s Congress’ responsibility to determine how cases are assigned — a responsibility Congress delegated to the district courts.

“To state the obvious, Judicial Conference policy is not legislation,” Republican Sens. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, John Cornyn of Texas and Thom Tillis of North Carolina wrote last month in letters to several chief judges.

McConnell, however, also introduced legislation to tackle judge shopping Wednesday. His bill, the “Stop Helping Outcome Preferences (SHOP) Act,” would limit injunctions to the parties in the case or jurisdiction of the judge, rather than having state- or nationwide effect. It would also sanction attorneys whom a disciplinary body of judges determines has engaged in judge shopping.

Schumer introduced his bill with Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin of Illinois and 38 other Democratic senators. McConnell introduced his bill with Tillis and Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas.

“Former President Trump and Leader McConnell stacked the courts with MAGA judges who are striking down laws, freedoms, and regulations left and right,” Schumer said in a statement. “We can’t let unelected judges thrash our democracy.”

Speaking from the Senate floor Thursday, McConnell said judge shopping was not limited to conservative causes. He alluded to liberal judges in California who also issued nationwide injunctions to pause former President Donald Trump’s policies. McConnell said the Southern Poverty Law Center and Lambda Legal engaged in judge shopping in a case on transgender care in Alabama — a conclusion shared by a three-judge panel.

“As I have said before, the problem with venue shopping is not a judge in North Texas,” McConnell said from the Senate floor. “It’s a national problem driven by the ability of single judges everywhere to grant injunctions that are national in scope.”

Texas, however, has been the site of some of the highest profile cases by conservative actors. The Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine, a Tennessee-based anti-abortion group, filed a lawsuit in Amarillo in 2022 challenging the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the abortion drug mifepristone. The group opened an Amarillo office months before filing their lawsuit in Kacsmaryk’s court.

Kacsmaryk last year suspended the FDA approval — a decision that was panned by the drug’s manufacturer and the Biden administration as interfering in the expertise of a nonpartisan agency. The case is now before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Kacsmaryk, who served as deputy counsel for the right-wing religious liberty law firm First Liberty Institute before Trump appointed him to the bench, is the sole sitting judge in his division, meaning cases filed in the Amarillo courthouse are almost certain to go before him. Kacsmaryk has also ruled against Biden administration efforts to help LGBTQ workers and reinstated the “Remain in Mexico” policy that made asylum seekers wait their claims outside the United States.

The U.S. Supreme Court has taken notice of the practice of nationwide injunctions used to combat Congress and the administration’s directives. Justice Neil Gorsuch, a Trump appointee, described a “rash of universal injunctions or vacatures” during a hearing on the mifepristone case, which he called a “prime example of turning what could be a small lawsuit into a nationwide legislative assembly on an FDA rule.”

“There are exactly zero universal injunctions that were issued during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s years in office, pretty consequential ones,” Gorsuch said. “And over the last four years or so, the number is something like 60. And maybe more than that.”

Eleanor Klibanoff contributed reporting.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/04/11/judge-shopping-texas-amarillo-kasmaryk-senate/.

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