The Volokh Conspiracy
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The Chief Judge of the Northern District of Texas Responds to Senator Schumer
The majority leader, and everyone else, should listen to the voice of Godbey on single-judge divisions.
A few weeks ago, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer sent a letter to Chief Judge Godbey of the Northern District of Texas. Schumer wrote, in so many words, That's a really nice court you have there, it would be a shame if something happened to it.
On Tuesday, Judge Godbey wrote a two-page response to Schumer. He made several important points
First, the proposals to outright eliminate single-judge divisions disregard how litigation works in remote places like Amarillo or Wichita Falls.
The allocation of cases among our judges is a complex matter. In addition to the fair administration of justice, we must also consider: the number and type of civil and criminal cases filed in a division, which varies significantly from division to division; the convenience of the jurors, witnesses, parties, and attorneys; the desire of communities to have local judges; the burden of travel on court personnel; and the need to provide judicial support for divisions without a resident district judge. Our system of case allocation among available judicial officers is one that has evolved over the years to meet the particular needs of our District, and we constantly reevaluate it.
Second, Judge Godbey opined on the sheer size of the Northern District of Texas, which is not comparable to the Northern District of New York:
The Northern District of Texas has some unusual characteristics that also require consideration. First, the District is geographically large. It encompasses more than 96,000 square miles. That is approximately 75% larger than the entire State of New York. It stretches more than 400 miles across, both North to South and East to West. It is also diverse, including the dense, urban Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, as well as sparsely populated rural counties in our North, West, and South reaches.
The distance from the southernmost portion of New York (Staten Island, my hometown) to the Northernmost portion (near the Canadian border) is only 350 miles. And a similar dynamic applies to the Southern District of Texas. The distance from Houston (the northernmost portion of the Southern District) to Brownsville (near the Mexican border) is about 350 miles. Then again, the Southern District of New York stretches all the way from Manhattan to Poughkeepsie (about 85 miles). I realize Senator Schumer may think the world ends beyond the Hudson, but there is lots of America that needs access to justice. And I say this as a former New Yorker who got to Texas as fast as I could. Rules that apply to dense states like New York would not make sense for sparse states like Texas.
Third, Judge Godbey explains why "random" assignments would not work.
So the random assignment of all civil cases across this District would present logistical challenges far beyond those of the smaller districts you mention, or the random assignment of a small slice of civil cases such as patent cases.
Judges who are stationed in Dallas with their staff cannot be expected to travel hundreds of miles away for random cases. And no, justice cannot always be dispensed on Zoom.
Godbey's last point is the most significant. The Chief Judge does not have the unilateral power to make this change.
I also bring to your attention a provision of our Local Rules which requires that the district judges as a whole determine the method by which cases are assigned to individual judges. See L. Civ. R. 83.3. It is common for the Chief Judge to tweak the percentage assignment to particular judges after consultation with the affected judges, which I did in the Orders you cite. But, I am not authorized to impose unilaterally a new method of case allocation for our District.
I am well aware that in 2016, Judge Godbey's predecessor reassigned 15% of cases from the Wichita Falls division to herself. That was a controversial decision at the time, and one that was never fully justified. And Judge Godbey reversed that decision in 2022. And I think Judge Godbey accurately states the rules.
My earlier writing on single-judge divisions can be found here and here.