Judge, Jury, and … Defendant?

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.

Why the Judicial Conference is asking for more judges

Last week, the Judicial Conference of the United States recommended that Congress add 73 permanent judgeships around the country. These are new judicial positions which would have to be filled, above and beyond the more than 120 existing federal judicial vacancies nationwide.

Political commentators have predictably seen this request through partisan lenses, noting (for example) that if all the requested judgeships were added and filled in short order, President Trump could “flip” the ideological composition of the Ninth Circuit. Given the current ugliness in Washington over proposals to pack the Supreme Court for partisan gain, it’s not entirely surprising that some would see the Judicial Conference’s request for more judges as having similarly political dimensions.

But the Conference must make its recommendation to Congress every two years, and that recommendation is based on hard evidence concerning the workload of the courts. Law360 has a good breakdown of the statistics behind the request, noting that nearly a third of the federal district courts have per-judge workloads that far exceed the recommended level.

It’s not clear if and when Congress will act on the request, although I certainly would not hold my breath on anything happening soon. In the meantime, the federal court system will continue to rely on internal strategies to manage its workload, including the use of senior judges and visiting judges in courts with otherwise crushing dockets.

New scholarship: Levy on Visiting Judges

Professor Marin Levy has posted a new article, Visiting Judges, on SSRN. It’s a very useful piece which describes the origins of the visiting judges program in the federal courts, and provides some insider perspective on the use of visitors on the federal courts of appeal (drawn from 35 interviews with appellate judges and staff).

One persistent theme in the judicial interviews is that visiting district judges benefit from learning about the appellate process and appellate culture. That makes good sense: a trial judge who better understands and appreciates how appellate panels think is more likely to structure a written opinion with appellate reviewers in mind. And many of the circuit courts in the study had formal programs that invited new district judges within the circuit to sit by designation in their first few years on the bench.

The appellate judges recognized that they, too, would benefit from sitting by designation more frequently on the district courts. Their circuits, however, had no meaningful tradition of doing so, and indeed, many of the appellate judges worried about their own competence on the trial bench.

But the benefits of trial experience for appellate judges are just as strong, if not stronger, than the benefits of appellate experience for trial judges. Appellate panels are routinely called upon to determine whether the trial court abused its discretion, or whether its assessments of witness credibility withstand scrutiny. Having to sit as a trial judge–to rule on evidentiary objections, instruct jurors, pore through records on summary judgment, sentence a defendant, or make quick decisions on motions for preliminary injunctions–would give appellate judges an essential perspective on the litigation trenches. (It’s worth noting that many judges interviewed stated that they had already served as trial judges or at least trial attorneys. But of course, that it not the case for all appellate judges, many of whom come from academia, state appellate courts, or some other non-trial practice.)

One might even imagine a formalized shadowing or training system, in which district and appellate judges take the time to show each other the ropes of their respective benches. Of course, such a program would require administrative planning and quite likely Congressional support and approval, but it would allow the benefits of experience to inure to both levels of the federal judiciary.