About the departments of the individual judge

After graduating from law school, I worked in the Johnstown Division of the Western District of Pennsylvania for two years. Until recently, that division had one federal judge. (The judge I clerked for has taken senior status, but is still trying cases, along with a new active judge.) Since the single judge division is in the news, I thought I’d share my experiences.

You might ask where the hell is Johnstown? This city, perhaps best known for its devastating floods, is located halfway between Pittsburgh and State College. It takes about 90 minutes to drive to both cities. The population is around 20,000 and decreasing.

Why is there a federal court there? For decades, Johnstown was represented by Rep. Jack Murtha, who was known as the “Pork King.” He was able to secure federal funding for a large airport in Johnstown that could land 747s. The President would often land down there on Air Force One! Otherwise, there were 1-2 flights a day on propellers. From what I’ve heard, Murtha used his extortion skills to set up a federal courthouse in Johnstown. But there was not even a separate federal building. The facility is located in a former department store. All rooms were internal. Indeed, none of our offices had windows. And the holding cell was on the opposite side of the chamber. We could hear the prisoners banging on the walls in our office.

Now, in keeping with the pork theme, the federal court brought a lot of other business to the area. If there is a federal judge, there must also be a US Attorney’s office (we had two AUSAs on site), a federal probation office, prisoner transport marshals, a part-time federal judge, a clerk’s office, court security personnel , court reporter and many others. I don’t think there was a dedicated public defender in the building – they had to drive in from Pittsburgh. (With all the people relying on one federal judge, I can understand why the federal judge in Utica, New York, insisted that his successor be based in that district—otherwise the entire staff would lose their jobs.)

At the time, I didn’t think much about the types of cases that were filed in our department. In my two years there, we had maybe one or two cases that could be considered medium-sized. Nothing high profile. No one sought a national ban in our unusual courtroom. But there was an effect that it was the only show in town. We’ve become 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 defenders would appear regularly. Over time, you will get to know the lawyer’s tendencies – both positive and negative. And there were repeated fillers. Many plaintiffs would file appeals over and over again.

Today, it may have become common to let lawyers participate in proceedings electronically. But ten years ago, conference calls were the exception, not the rule. Lawyers and litigants were generally expected to appear in person. For those parties who lived in or around Johnstown, personal appearance was very helpful. Traveling to and from Pittsburgh regularly would be taxing. For out-of-town lawyers, however, it was a pain. I remember one trial involving a large Wall Street firm. I doubt the lawyers were happy with the accommodation at the local Holiday Inn (the best hotel in the city centre).

In addition to lawyers and litigants, the local court in these remote areas has 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 travel 90 minutes each way to and from Pittsburgh. I think it is an important civic function made possible by our local division. Second, we often had naturalization ceremonies for new citizens. I was at the big ceremonies in Houston, where hundreds of new citizens are sworn in. But in Johnstown we had maybe a dozen people who lived in the community. And the courtroom was packed with family and friends. They were intimate and often emotional occasions. My judge would always give American flags to new citizens. I insisted on giving them pocket Constitutions as well. Third, for sentencing hearings, it makes sense for the defendant’s family and friends to be present. I remember one sentencing hearing where all the defendant’s young children were present. At other hearings, employers, priests and friends can speak about the defendant’s character. At some level, this kind of support makes a difference. If the discussions were held in remote areas, it would be difficult to provide this level of support. Indeed, the Sixth Amendment’s Neighborhood Clause reflects the importance of location to criminal proceedings: the accused shall be entitled to “an impartial jury of the State and district in which the crime was committed, which district will be previously determined by law.”

Congress has long had the power to establish districts by law. And the creation of a single-judge division was not some sort of nefarious ploy to empower evil judges to thwart national plans. These single-judge divisions were established to provide access to justice for smaller communities that cannot justify the expense of multiple judges. Judges do not choose their cases; lawyers choose their forums.

Of course, Congress could modify the assignment of cases to single-judge divisions. Or the courts may, according to local rule, change the assignment of cases to single judge divisions. For example, a certain percentage of cases filed in one judge’s division would be assigned, at random, to other judges in the district. To be sure, these changes may make forum shopping more difficult. But let’s be clear about the logistical reality. If you reassign cases to distant courts, then judges and their staff will have to regularly travel to those areas to hold trials, plead guilty, sentence defendants, and so on. Round trip, meeting with the district.

For those curious, the reason Judge Reed O’Connor was assigned to the Wichita Falls Division of the Northern District of Texas was because there were no other full-time judges stationed there. So, in an act of generosity, Judge O’Connor signed up for the ninety-minute drive from Ft. Worth 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 of Victoria is about a two-hour drive from Houston. And Brownsville is a five-hour drive away. Maybe more judges in Dallas and Houston would be willing to make those long drives in the interest of justice, or whatever. But I’m skeptical. Judges have very busy schedules, and these trips take up a lot of time. Texas is a really big state. Indeed, there was a time when the Supreme Court held that the driving time required to cross Texas was an unnecessary burden on a constitutional right! I suppose judges located in comfortable metropolises can get closer to the divisions. But the judiciary in absentia would not serve the needs of those in the community.

I find it troubling when the chief justice singles out one of his colleagues in one judge’s division for special treatment. The move reflects a form of retaliation against litigants who follow federal law and local rules to choose the forum of their choice. Moreover, this redistribution reflects a form of retaliation against the judge based on his decisions. Usually, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court give judgments to a district court judge, not to whoever currently holds the position of Chief Justice.

To keep things fair, any rule that applies to one judge should apply to all judges in the district. If individual departments are so bad, then subjects should be reallocated to all individual departments. And if Congress passes a law, this type of rule should apply nationwide, not just in Texas. Even better, perhaps judges from the coast could reside in the center of the country and spread justice from sea to sea. They can start by traveling down to the border to process the endless backlog of illegal re-entry cases. Brownsville is beautiful this time of year.

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