Judicial Conference Policy on Random Case Assignments Prompted by Tillis/Roberts Complaints About Waco

“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.” – Judicial Conference

judicial conferenceThe Judicial Conference of the United States announced yesterday that it is strengthening its policy on random case assignments in order to limit the practice of judge shopping in U.S. district courts.

According to the press release, the policy would assign judges via a district-wide random selection process in “all civil actions that seek to bar or mandate state or federal actions, ‘whether by declaratory judgment and/or any form of injunctive relief.’”

The policy change comes partially in response to a November 2021 letter sent by Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) and then-Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) to Chief Justice John Roberts of the U.S. Supreme Court expressing serious concerns about “unrealistic trial dates” and “open solicit[ation]” of patent cases from a single judge in the Waco Division of the Western District of Texas. While never mentioned by name, U.S. District Judge Alan D. Albright was unmistakably the subject of the letter.

A separate letter sent by Tillis to then-acting U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) Director Drew Hirshfeld raised concerns about how Albright “schedules very early trial dates for all patent cases assigned to him.” The letter to Roberts said such activities have contributed to a dramatic increase in the Waco Division’s patent caseload. Although the entire Western District of Texas only heard an average of one patent case per year in 2016 and 2017, Judge Albright’s docket alone rose to more than 800 cases in 2020.

As noted in the Conference’s press release yesterday, Chief Justice Roberts also noted the Tillis/ Leahy letter in his 2021 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary and called 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.

The Conference announcement explained:

“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.”

The full details of the policy and the corresponding guidance for district courts is not yet available, but the Conference said the policy will apply “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.”

“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 a January 2022 article following Roberts’ Year End Report, IPWatchdog CEO and Founder Gene Quinn said making such changes will ultimately disadvantage plaintiffs in highly specialized subject matter areas like patent law:

“What exactly is wrong with plaintiffs filing in a court where a judge has experience handling the precise type of action they are filing? Filing where judges have significant expertise precisely happens every day in the District of Delaware without anyone raising an eyebrow? And those multinational corporations that are sued in Delaware could be sued in other courts. So, if the “arcane but important matter of judicial administration” needs to be reviewed it should be reviewed for all courts that have subject matter expertise.

Regardless of what happens, the one thing we can be sure of is that the ultimate outcome will be to the disadvantage of patent owners who are plaintiffs. There won’t be any concern with defendants trying to transfer cases to courts and judges they know to be sympathetic to infringers and virtually certain to invalidate the patents. The concern will only be with patent owners filing in a court where they actually stand a fair chance of being heard and making it to trial.”

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Author: alexmillos
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Join the Discussion

2 comments so far.

  • [Avatar for Michael Smith]
    Michael Smith
    March 13, 2024 11:02 pm

    Patent cases were the driving force behind the review, but this action does not apply to patent infringement cases. The committee did not recommend a policy for patent case assignments – but with the caveat that neither the policy nor the guidance to courts has been made public. So we don’t know for sure.

  • [Avatar for Josh Malone]
    Josh Malone
    March 13, 2024 01:09 pm

    Can we get our IPRs randomly assigned to a real judge?

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