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Assigning Judges to Cases

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In most courts below the level of the Supreme Court (state or federal), most cases are heard by something less than all the judges of the court.  How do judges get assigned to cases?  Can assignments be manipulated?  Are they?

Presently, there is a big controversy in the Ninth Circuit regarding assignments to the same-sex marriage cases.  Josh Blackman has this post at his eponymous blog.  It seems Judges Reinhardt and Berzon get assigned to these panels at rates far beyond what can plausibly be explained by chance.  CJLF takes no position on the underlying issue in these cases, but the fairness of judicial assignments is something that does concern us.

In civil litigation affecting the criminal justice system, we have seen manipulations of the "related case" rules to funnel the prisoner rights cases and the cases blocking implementation of an important reform of capital habeas corpus to the most prisoner-friendly judges.  The three-judge panel that heard the California overcrowding case was the prisoners' dream team.  If I were representing the prisoners and could choose any three judges from the entire federal judiciary, those are the three I would have chosen.

The next Congress should take a good, hard look at judicial assignment policies.  This is too important to leave to local rules of court.

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