About Single-Judge Divisions

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After I graduated law school, I clerked in the Johnstown Division of the Western District of Pennsylvania for two years. Until fairly recently, that Division had a single federal judge. (The judge for whom I clerked assumed senior status, but still hears cases, along with a new active judge.) Since the single-judge division is in the news, I thought I would share my experiences.

You might ask, where the heck is Johnstown? This city, perhaps most famous for the devastating floods, sits half-way between Pittsburgh and State College. It is about a 90-minute drive to either city. The population is approximately 20,000, and dropping.

Why is there a federal court there? For decades, Johnstown was represented by Representative Jack Murtha, who was known as the “King of Pork.” He was able to secure federal funding for a massive airport in Johnstown that could land 747s. The President would often touch down there on Air Force One! Otherwise, there were 1 or 2 flights a day on propeller jets. From what I’ve heard, Murtha used his earmarking prowess to establish a federal court in Johnstown. But there wasn’t even a dedicated federal building. The facility was installed in a former department store. All of the rooms were internal. Indeed, none of our offices had windows. And the holding cell was on the opposite side of chambers. We could hear the prisoners banging against the walls in our office.

Now, in keeping with the theme of pork, the federal court brought lots of other jobs to the area. If there is a federal judge, there must also be a U.S. Attorneys office (we had two AUSAs on site), a federal probation office, marshals to transport the prisoners, a part-time federal magistrate, a clerk’s office, court security staff, court reporter, and many others. I do not think there was a dedicated public defender in the building–they had to drive from Pittsburgh.(Given all the people who rely on a single federal judge, I can understand why a federal judge in Utica, New York, insisted his successor be placed in that district–otherwise, all of the staff would lose their jobs.)

At the time, I didn’t give much thought to the types of cases that were filed in our division. In my two years there, we had maybe one or two cases that could be deemed medium-profile. Nothing high profile. No one sought a nationwide injunction in our quaint courtroom. But there was an effect of being the only show in town. We became very, very familiar with repeat players. We would see the same two AUSAs on a daily basis. The same cadre of federal public defenders, and local defense attorneys, would routinely make appearances. Over time, you get to know the lawyers’ proclivities–both positive and negative. And then there were the repeat filers. Many plaintiffs would file complaints over and over again.

Today, perhaps, it has become common to let attorneys participate in proceedings electronically. But a decade ago, telephonic conferences were the exception, rather than the rule. Lawyers and parties were generally expected to make appearances in person. For those parties who lived in Johnstown, or a surrounding area, the in-person appearance was very beneficial. Traveling to-and-from Pittsburgh on a regular basis would have burdensome. For out-of-town attorneys, however, it was a pain. I remember one trial involving a large Wall Street firm. I doubt the lawyers were pleased with accommodations at the local Holiday Inn (the best hotel in the downtown area).

Beyond the lawyers and the parties, a local court in these remote areas serves other important functions. First, it allows people in the community to serve on federal grand and petit juries. Again, it would not be feasible to commute 90 minutes each way to and from Pittsburgh. I think this is an important civic function that our local division enabled. Second, we often had naturalization ceremonies for new citizens. I’ve been to massive ceremonies in Houston, where hundreds of new citizens take the oath. But in Johnstown, we had maybe a dozen people who lived in the community. And the courtroom was packed with family and friends. These were intimate, and often emotional occasions. My judge would always give the new citizens American flags. I insisted on giving them pocket Constitutions as well. Third, for sentencing hearings, it is meaningful to have the defendant’s family and friends present. I remember one sentencing hearing where the defendant’s young children were all present. At other hearings, employers, priests, and friends can speak to the defendant’s character. At some level, this kind of support makes a difference. If the hearings were held in far-flung areas, it would be hard to bring this level of support. Indeed, the Vicinage Clause of the Sixth Amendment reflects the importance of locality for criminal proceedings: the accused shall be entitled to “impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law.”

Congress has long had the power to ascertain districts by law. And the creation of single-judge divisions was not some sort of nefarious ploy to empower evil judges to stymie national agendas. These single-judge divisions were established to let smaller communities, that cannot justify the cost of multiple judges, have access to justice. Judges don’t pick their cases; lawyers pick their forums.

Of course, Congress could modify the assignment of cases to single-judge divisions. Or the courts can, by local rule, modify the assignment of cases to single-judge divisions. For example, a certain percentage of cases filed in a single-judge division would be assigned, at random, to other judges in the district. To be sure, these changes can make it harder to forum shop. But let’s be clear about the logistical realities. If you are reassigning cases to remote courts, then judges and their staff will have to commute to those areas on a regular basis to hold trials, accept guilty please, sentence defendants, and so on. Circuit riding, meeting District schlepping.

For those curious, the reason why Judge Reed O’Connor was assigned to the Wichita Falls division of the Northern District of Texas was because no other full-time judge was stationed there. So, in an act of generosity, Judge O’Connor signed up to take the ninety-minute drive from Ft. Worth to Wichita Falls. For those curious, the single-judge divisions in Lubbock and Amarillo are about five hours from Dallas. And in the Southern District of Texas, the single-judge division in Victoria is about a two-hour drive from Houston. And Brownsville is a five-hour drive. Perhaps more of the judges in Dallas and Houston would be willing to make these long drives in the interest of justice, or whatever. But I’m skeptical. Judges keep very busy schedules, and these trips are time-consuming. Texas really is a big state. Indeed, there was a time when the Supreme Court held that the amount of driving time needed to cross Texas was an undue burden on a constitutional right! I suppose judges ensconced in cushy metropolises can Zoom in to podunk divisions. But a judiciary-in-absentia would not serve the needs of those in the community.

I find it troubling when a Chief Judge singles out one of her colleagues in a single judge division for special treatment. This move reflects a form of retaliation against litigants who are complying with federal law and local rules to choose the forum of their choice. Moreover, this reassignment reflects a form of retaliation against a judge on the basis of his rulings. Usually, the Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court, sit in judgment of a district court judge, not whomever currently occupies the chief judge seat.

To keep things fair, any rule applied to one judge, should be applied to all judges in a district. If single-judge divisions are so bad, then all single-judge divisions should have cases reassigned. And if Congress legislates, this sort of rule should be applied across the country, and not just in Texas. Even better, perhaps Judges from the coasts could sojourn to the heartland to spread justice from sea-to-shining-sea. They can start by traveling down to the border to process the never-ending backlog of illegal re-entry cases. Brownsville is lovely this time of year.

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