On March 12, 2024, the Judicial Conference of the United States announced new guidance applying to case assignments in federal district courts, with the intent to curb “judge-shopping” by limiting litigants’ ability to pre-select a specific judge by filing in a division where only a single judge sits. Officially titled Guidance for Civil Case Assignments in District Courts, the new guidance recommends that courts randomly assign certain civil actions to any judge within a district rather than only the judge(s) in the division where the case is filed.

Under the guidance, district courts are encouraged to apply district-wide assignment to all civil actions that seek to bar or mandate statewide enforcement of a state law or the nationwide enforcement federal law, including a rule, regulation, policy, or order of the executive branch, a state agency, or a federal agency. The guidance includes all civil actions seeking declaratory judgment and/or any form of injunctive relief, but it does not currently apply to criminal and bankruptcy cases. 

In recent years, concerns about litigants intentionally selecting preferred judges based on their perceived leanings, abilities, or positions on legal issues that could have a nationwide impact have gained national prominence as litigants on divisive issues such as abortion medication challenges, environmental issues, and immigration policies have commenced their actions in specific single-judge divisions. 

It is currently unclear how district courts across the United States will interpret and implement the guidance, if at all. This guidance does not have the force of law as do general rules of practice and procedure or rules of evidence that have been passed pursuant to the rulemaking function under the Rules Enabling Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2071-2077. The guidance requests that courts “consider incorporating case assignment practices into rules and orders as opposed to internal plans or policies,” to promote transparency and public confidence in the case assignment process. Practically speaking, any such changes will likely only significantly impact divisions where only a single judge sits. Moreover, district courts opting to adopt measures pursuant to the guidance, and disclose their revised case assignment policies, will need time to update their official rules and orders.

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