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February 26, 2015 7:02 PM   Subscribe

What rules and regulations in the US apply to choosing which judges/venues get to cover certain cases?

I often hear about legal cases where one of the parties brings the suit to a location friendly to their argument to improve their chances. Patent trolls that know which places to file their suits. Political groups wanting to change existing law choose venues where the judge ruling is on their side politically. Etc. There has to be some limitations right? Or am I deluding myself?
posted by downtohisturtles to Law & Government (8 answers total)
The google term you want is "jurisdiction." A court must either have subject matter jurisdiction (bankruptcy court, patent court; also including federal diversity jurisdiction, where litigants live in two different states) or personal jurisdiction (residence of the individual, the property, or substantial business events in a particular jurisdiction). It's a rich and highly-litigated area of law.

It is much easier to forum-shop a civil case than a criminal case, and it's generally much easier for cases involving corporations to forum-shop (because they typically do business in multiple states, creating multiple points of jurisdiction) than for cases involving two individuals to do so.

Particular locations become notorious for forum shopping; Madison County, Illinois, a relatively small county including the Illinois suburbs of St. Louis, with a population under 300,000, has been a national epicenter for class action lawsuits due to its friendliness to class action plaintiffs. On the one hand, its judges developed considerable expertise in the specific questions that surround certifying class-action lawsuits, particularly in asbestos. On the other hand, 60% of the court docket was out-of-state asbestos actions.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:38 PM on February 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

There are limitations, but there are ways you can pick venue to your best advantage. Eyebrows McGee has already pointed out that for cases involving corporations and interstate commerce make it really easy to venue shop.

Rather than talk about federal cases, I'll give you a basic car accident (i.e., personal injury) sort of case. In NY, venue can be based on either the residence of the plaintiff or the defendant -- but not the location of the accident. Plaintiffs will want a plaintiff friendly jurisdiction (say, the Bronx) while defendants will want a defense friendly jurisdiction (say out in the suburbs of Long Island, either Nassau or Suffolk county).

If an accident happens in the Bronx, but the plaintiff lives in Queens and the defendant lives in Nassau, you've only got two possible venues. However, the plaintiff attorney may think the defense won't notice if he files in the Bronx since that's where the accident happened. Then the defendant can move to change venue (within 15 days of answering?) but then the defendant gets to pick (so they'd pick Nassau over Queens). What the plaintiff should have done is filed in Queens (in which case, the defendant would be right to say that Nassau is appropriate, but no more appropriate than Queens, so in Queens the case would remain).

Going back to bigger cases for a bit, here's an interesting Quora question: Why is the Eastern District of Texas the venue for so many patent cases?

(I don't think this is needed but IANAL, TINLA, DTMFA, ROFLCOPTER, etc.)
posted by Brian Puccio at 7:44 PM on February 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

I am an attorney, but I am not your attorney. This is not legal advice.

There are two separate but related issues here: jurisdiction and venue. Jurisdiction, in turn, is divided into two sub-issues: subject matter jurisdiction and personal jurisdiction. Very roughly, the decision tree goes like this:

1. Does this kind of court have subject matter jurisdiction over this kind of case? E.g., you can't bring a patent case in state court, and you can't bring a divorce case in federal court.

2. Does this particular court have personal jurisdiction over the parties? E.g., has the defendant been served with process? Does the defendant have sufficient contacts with the state in which the court is located?

3. If 1 and 2 are satisfied, is this particular court an appropriate venue?

It may be possible for multiple courts to potentially have jurisdiction over a given case. But jurisdiction alone isn't enough. The court must also be an appropriate venue.

For example, suppose a patent infringement lawsuit is filed by a Texas-based company in federal court in Texas against a California-based company. Suppose further that all of the witnesses and evidence (even those from the Texas company) are actually located in California. Technically, the Texas federal court may have jurisdiction (e.g. it's a federal case in federal court, the defendant was served with process, and the California company may do business in Texas). But it may still not be the appropriate venue because "[f]or the convenience of parties and witnesses, in the interest of justice, a district court may transfer any civil action to another district court or division where it might have been brought." 28 U.S.C. ยง 1404(a)
posted by jedicus at 7:49 PM on February 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

That's all a gross oversimplification, of course. There are 1000+ page treatises on the subjects of jurisdiction and venue, especially as between the federal courts, state courts, and administrative agencies.

You also asked how judges are assigned to cases. Most courts use a round-robin system (i.e. there's a list of judges and they each get assigned cases in order as they come in). Some courts allow a degree of specialization (e.g. in some federal district courts there are a handful of judges that take all of the patent cases). In general it is not possible for parties to directly pick or request a particular judge.
posted by jedicus at 7:52 PM on February 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

There are two concepts related to where cases are heard: jurisdiction and venue.

See generally, LII's Jurisdiction vs. Venue, this ABA page, this random page I googled that has most of the broad strokes.

Yes, there are limitations. The federal laws (e.g. federal statutes), state laws (e.g. a portion of Texas statutes), and local rules (e.g. Harris County Probate Courts) lay them out. These rules are in turn interpreted by the courts (Google Scholar case search for jurisdiction and venue). These concepts fall under the broad heading "Civil Procedure."

On preview, jedicus is right -- it can get complicated quick. Which is unfortunate, because it leaves many folks from outside the legal machinery with the impression that chicanery will lead to unfair advantages.
posted by GPF at 8:06 PM on February 26, 2015

Sometimes very small jurisdictions are popular because they have only one judge ... Thus removing uncertainty about who will hear your case. Rural counties in Illinois may have a single judge "riding circuit" for three counties; my husband and I know personally every single judge in our county (and have campaigned for about half) because it's a small local bar (6 judges maybe?) ... when my husband got a traffic ticket the judge had to recuse herself, and she was the only judge hearing traffic court that year (so it would have been transferred to the small claims judge had it not been dropped). The small claims judge was a devoted reader of my blog, although not a particular friend of ours beyond that.

One time I had a case scheduled at the same time as another case, which judges sometimes do when they're hoping one of the cases will settle or delay, and I told the judge we'd decided I'd go first, which the judge found to be suspiciously short on contentiousness between the lawyers on the two motions, so he asked the other lawyer if he was in fact amenable to going second and the other lawyer was like, "Well I'm married to her, your honor, so I should probably let her go first." I'd been scheduled against my husband and neither of us knew it until we got there! Small courts, man. (This is also why I cannot get seated on a jury.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:09 PM on February 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

Another term that will lead to some good research -- "Forum Shopping." It describes the process of parties selectively choosing the forum that hears their cases, as you've described above.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:41 AM on February 27, 2015

You can also look into motions for substitution and motions for disqualification, if you're interested in how it works at the individual judge level--but it's nitpicky and very place-specific. Jedicus' overview is a good one--it's not generally possible (short of bribery or counties where there are only 2 sitting judges, which exist) to get a specific judge for your trial.

For instance, here in Cook County, thanks to a federal sting operation and a bunch of bribed judges, we have what's called the random judicial assignment procedure. We also have basically unlimited motions for substitution of judge as of right in civil trials prior to the start of the substance of the proceedings (that is, you can make a motion for a new judge without any reason and it must be granted, provided nothing of substance--which has a specific meaning in law--has yet happened). Motions for substitution for cause in civil trials (that is, you have a specific reason that this particular judge cannot fairly preside over your trial, like her husband owns the business you're suing) may be made at any time, and more than once, but they are more complicated and there is (in my opinion) insufficient oversight of them.

The right to substitute a judge in a criminal trial is more constrained, but a defendant does have the right to one substitution for cause (two in homicide or Class X felony cases), as does the state (but the state only gets one).

this is one of those questions that validates the whole law school experience. It really is complicated, with a lot of working parts coming together--albeit imperfectly--to prevent attorneys and litigants from gaming the system.
posted by crush-onastick at 9:01 AM on February 27, 2015

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