A former public defender sued the federal judiciary’s lead administrative institutions for mishandling a harassment claim. Can those same institutions select the judges who hear the case?
Next week, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear argument in Roe v. United States, a case involving allegations that federal court officials — including those in the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO) — mishandled a workplace harassment claim. But none of the judges hearing the Fourth Circuit appeal are actually from the Fourth Circuit, just as the judge who heard the original case in the Western District of North Carolina was not from that district. Nearly two years ago, Chief Justice John Roberts reassigned the case to a district judge in Massachusetts and a “Fourth Circuit” panel composed of judges from other circuits.
From the courts’ perspective, this reassignment of the case was ordinary and ministerial, a way of avoiding the appearance of partiality or bias by taking the case away from judges in the district and circuit where the key events took place. But the plaintiff, whose case was eventually dismissed, suggests that the process of reassignment was itself so flawed as to create “blatant conflicts of interest” and a “severe appearance of impropriety.” Accordingly, she is seeking to vacate the judgment of dismissal.
The controversial reassignment process involved the Chief Justice, the Judicial Conference Intercircuit Assignment Committee, and staff from the AO and the Fourth Circuit. The judiciary’s brief recounts that a Fourth Circuit staffer informed an AO staffer about about the need for an intercircuit assignment — both for the district court and appellate proceedings. The AO staffer then consulted a roster of judges who had previously indicated their willingness and availability to serve on panels in cases in which one or more judges had been recused. The AO staffer then contacted each of the judges to confirm availability and willingness to serve on the case. Once the judges were confirmed, the staffer notified the Chair of the Intercircuit Assignment Committee, who finalized the necessary administrative paperwork for the Chief Justice’s signature.
The court system (represented, interestingly enough, by the Department of Justice) repeatedly characterizes this process as “routine,” noting that none of the individuals involved in the reassignment had any stake in the outcome of the case. Still, the plaintiff is unsatisfied. Although she does not claim that any of the reassigned judges are actually biased against her, the mere fact that individuals from the Judicial Conference and AO were involved in their selection is a glaring red flag. As plaintiff’s brief puts it, “[w]here following a routine process would create a conflict of interest in a particular case, the routine is supposed to yield–through proper recusal–in order to avoid the conflict of interest.”
This is a matter of substantial organizational complexity. Taken at face value, the plaintiff’s position suggests that any lawsuit naming the Judicial Conference or AO as a party would necessarily invalidate any reassignment, unless a completely different administrative apparatus is tasked with that responsibility. That could be accomplished only with considerable inefficiency. Even if the AO were to hand over its files on available judges to another office within the federal court system so as to wash its hands of the decision, the files themselves might arguably be tainted by having come from the AO. And, of course, the mechanism for selecting new judges would be placed into the hands of individuals and institutions who are not readily equipped to perform that function.
Unfortunately, the plaintiff does not offer any clear solutions here, other than blanket vacatur of the lower court decision. That is her right, and perhaps it is good strategy. But it is hard to see how the current panel would simply throw the reassignment process into disarray without some idea of how the challenge could be met in the future.