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Federal courts move to restrict 'judge shopping,' which got attention after abortion medication case

WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal courts moved Tuesday to make it harder to file lawsuits in front of judges seen as friendly to a point of view, a practice known as judge shopping that gained national attention in a major abortion medication case.

The new policy covers civil suits that would affect an entire state or the whole country. It would require a judge to be randomly assigned, even in areas where locally filed cases have gone before a single judge.

Cases are already assigned at random under plans in most of the country’s 94 federal district courts, but some plans assign cases to judges in the smaller division where the case is filed. In divisions with only one judge, often in rural areas, that means private or state attorneys can essentially pick which judge will hear it.

The practice has raised concerns from senators and the Biden administration, and its use in patent cases was highlighted by Chief Justice John Roberts in his 2021 report on the federal judiciary.

Interest groups of all kinds have long attempted to file lawsuits before judges they see as friendly to their causes. But the practice got more attention after an unprecedented ruling halting approval of abortion medication. That case was filed in Amarillo, Texas, where it was all but certain to go before U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, an appointee of former President Donald Trump who is a former attorney for a religious liberty legal group with a long history pushing conservative causes.

The Supreme Court put the abortion medication ruling on hold, and is hearing arguments on it later this month.

The new policy announced by the U.S. Judicial Conference after its biennial meeting would not apply to cases seeking only local action. It was adopted not in response to any one case but rather a “plethora of national and statewide injunctions,” said Judge Jeff Sutton, chief judge of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals and chair of the Judicial Conference’s executive committee.

“We get the idea of having local cases resolved locally, but when a case is a declaratory judgement action or national injunction, obviously the stakes of the case go beyond that small town," he said.