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Conservative Federal Court Says It Won’t Follow New Guidelines Against 'Judge Shopping'

Judge David Godbey, the chief judge of the Northern Texas federal district court division, told Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on March 29 that his court would not follow new guidelines meant to curtail the practice of “judge shopping,” a strategy that conservatives have increasingly used to strike down the policies of President Joe Biden.

“It is unfortunate that Chief Judge Godbey and the district judges of the Northern District of Texas have decided to continue to allow the odious practice of judge shopping,” Schumer said in a statement on April 1. “In doing so, they are allowing plaintiffs to choose their judge — a practice that the Judicial Conference has issued guidance to try to curtail.”

The Northern Texas federal district courts have been a hotbed of judge shopping by conservative activists ever since Biden took office. Judge shopping is the practice of a plaintiff filing suit in a particular judicial division with the knowledge that the division’s cases are overseen by only one judge — a judge the plaintiff knows is favorable to their cause.

Conservative Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk is at the heart of the controversial issue of judge shopping, where plaintiffs can select the judge they want to hear their case.
Conservative Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk is at the heart of the controversial issue of judge shopping, where plaintiffs can select the judge they want to hear their case. via Associated Press

The most notable example of this comes from the Amarillo, Texas, courtroom of federal Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, where conservatives have repeatedly filed suits with little geographic relationship to Northern Texas, but large national ambitions to block Biden administration policies. Kacsmaryk, who previously worked as a lawyer for religious right groups, played his part by issuing controversial decisions that put in place national injunctions to block Biden’s policies from immigration to the approval of the abortion drug mifepristone.

After being criticized by national Democrats and even federal judges, the Judicial Conference, the 26-member oversight body that sets rules for the federal judiciary, issued new guidelines on March 12 meant to stem the increase in judge shopping. District courts were to randomly assign judges for cases seeking national injunctive relief, according to the new guidelines.

But after significant pushback from Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Judicial Conference clarified that the guidelines were voluntary. That left the decision about whether to abide by the new guidelines up to the chief judges of each regional district court. There are no penalties for courts that do not adopt the new guidelines.

As the head of the district court most favored for judge shopping, Godbey came in for special lobbying by partisans on both sides. First, McConnell wrote to Godbey on March 14 urging him to reject the guidelines and continue to allow conservatives to bring their special pleas to Kacsmaryk’s Amarillo court. Schumer responded on March 22 with his own plea for Godbey to abide by the guidelines.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) wrote to Northern Texas District Court Chief Judge David Godbey to ask that he follow new judge-shopping guidelines.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) wrote to Northern Texas District Court Chief Judge David Godbey to ask that he follow new judge-shopping guidelines. Tom Williams via Getty Images

In his March 29 letter to Schumer, Godbey sided with McConnell, noting that he met with all of his district court judges and decided against implementing the guidelines.

“The district judges of the Northern District of Texas met on March 27, 2024, and discussed case assignment,” Godbey wrote. “The consensus was not to make any change to our case assignment process at this time.”

In response, Schumer said that the Senate would now “consider legislative options that put an end to this misguided practice.”

Concerns about the results of judge shopping by conservatives are not confined to Democratic Party politicians. The direction of cases to single-judge districts, like the one headed by Kacsmaryk, has produced such poorly reasoned decisions that the conservative Supreme Court has repeatedly turned them back.

The high court’s patience may be running thin, too. During arguments over the availability of the abortion drug mifepristone, a ruling that originated in Kacsmaryk’s courthouse, the justices seemed exasperated at how such a poorly structured case, with no clear claim that the anti-abortion plaintiffs had standing to sue, made it all the way to them. At one point, Justice Neil Gorsuch, a conservative Trump appointee, bemoaned the manner in which the case came before the court.

“We’ve had, one might call, a rash of universal injunctions or vacaturs,” Gorsuch said, describing the type of cases sought by judge-shoppers. “This case seems like a prime example of turning what could be a small lawsuit into a nationwide legislative assembly on an FDA rule or any other federal government action.”

Godbey may be able to ignore Schumer’s entreaties for now, but continued irritation from the Supreme Court’s conservatives could be more persuasive.