After I graduated from law school, I clerked in the Johnstone Division of the Western District of Pennsylvania for two years. Until fairly recently, this division had a single federal judge. (The judge for whom I clerked took seniority, but is still hearing cases with a new active judge.) Since the single judge division is in the news, I thought I’d share my experience.
You may ask, where the heck is Johnstown? The city, perhaps most famous for its devastating floods, sits halfway between Pittsburgh and State College. It is about 90 minutes drive to both cities. The population is about 20,000, and dropping.
Why is there a federal court? For decades, Johnstown was represented by Representative Jack Murtha, known as the “Pig King.” He was able to secure federal funding for a large airport in Johnstown that could land 747s. The President often touched down there on Air Force One! Otherwise, propeller jets had 1 or 2 flights a day. From what I heard, Murtha used his specific skills to establish a federal courthouse in Johnstown. But there was not even a dedicated federal building. The facility was installed in a former department store. All rooms were indoor. In fact, our office had no windows. And the holding cell was on the opposite side of the chambers. We could hear the inmates knocking on the walls of our office.
Now, in keeping with the pork theme, the federal court has brought plenty of other jobs to the area. If there is a federal judge, there must be a US Attorney’s office (we had two AUSAs on site), a federal probation office, marshals to transport prisoners, a part-time federal magistrate, a clerk’s office, court security personnel, court reporters, and more. A lot. I don’t think there was a dedicated public defender in the building – they had to drive in from Pittsburgh. will be placed in that district—otherwise, all workers will lose their jobs.)
At that time I didn’t think much about the type of cases that were filed in our division. In my two years there, we had one or two cases that could be considered medium-profile. Nothing high profile. No one in our motley court has sought a nationwide ban. But being the only show in town had ramifications. We’ve become very, very familiar with recurring players. We will see the same two AUSAs on a daily basis. The same cadre of federal public defenders, and local defense attorneys, will regularly appear. Over time, you will learn about lawyers’ motivations – both positive and negative. And then there were repeat filers. Many plaintiffs filed repeated complaints.
Today, perhaps, it has become common to allow attorneys to participate in proceedings electronically. But a decade ago, teleconferences were the exception rather than the rule. Lawyers and parties were generally expected to appear in person. For those who lived in Johnstown or the surrounding area, personal appearance was very useful. Regular travel from Pittsburgh would be difficult. For out-of-town attorneys, however, it was a pain. I remember a trial involving a large Wall Street firm. I suspect the lawyers were satisfied with accommodations at the local Holiday Inn (the best hotel in the downtown area).
Beyond lawyers and parties, a local court in these remote areas performs other important functions. First, it allows people from the community to serve on federal grand and petit juries. Again, a 90 minute commute to and from Pittsburgh would not be possible. I think this is an important civic function that our local department has enabled. Second, we often held naturalization ceremonies for new citizens. I’ve been to the huge ceremony in Houston, where hundreds of new citizens are sworn in. But in Johnstown, we had a dozen people living in the community. And the courtroom was packed with family and friends. These were intimate, and often emotional occasions. My judge always gave American flags to new citizens. I insisted on giving them pocket constitutions. Third, for sentencing hearings, it makes sense 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 may speak to the defendant’s character. At some level, this kind of support makes a difference. If the hearing is held in a remote area, it will be difficult to bring in this level of support. Indeed, the Vicinity Clause of the Sixth Amendment reflects the importance of locality to criminal proceedings: the accused “shall be entitled to an impartial jury of the State and district in which the crime shall have been committed, Any district shall be first determined by law“
Congress has long had the power to draw districts by statute. And creating a single-judge bench was not some sort of nefarious plot to empower rogue judges to thwart the national agenda. These single-judge divisions were established to allow small communities, which could not justify the expense of multiple judges, to have access to justice. Judges do not choose their cases; Lawyers choose their forum.
Of course, Congress can change the assignment of cases to single-judge divisions. Or the court may, in accordance with local rules, change the allocation of cases to single-judge divisions. For example, a certain percentage of cases filed in a single-judge division will be assigned, at random, to other judges in the district. To be sure, these changes can make forum shopping difficult. But let’s be clear about its logical reality. If you reschedule cases to a remote court, judges and their staff must regularly travel to that area to conduct trials, plead guilty pleas, sentence defendants, and more. Circuit riding, schlepping meeting districts.
For those curious, the reason Judge Reid O’Connor was assigned to the Wichita Falls Division of the Northern District of Texas was because there were no other full-time judges. So, in an act of generosity, Judge O’Connor signed up to take the ninety-minute drive from Ft. Price of 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 district of Victoria is about two hours from Houston. And Brownsville is five hours away. Perhaps more judges in Dallas and Houston would be willing to make this long drive for the sake of justice or whatever. But I’m skeptical. Judges have very busy schedules and these trips are time consuming. Texas is a really big state. In fact, there was a time when the Supreme Court held that the amount of driving time required to cross Texas was an undue burden on a constitutional right! I suppose judges bound for the glorious metropolis might zoom in on the podunk category. But justice system-absent will not meet the needs of the community.
I find it disturbing when a Chief Justice singles out one of his colleagues for special treatment in a single judge division. The move reflects a form of retaliation against litigants who comply with federal law and local rules for choosing the forum of their choice. Moreover, this reassignment reflects a form of retaliation against a judge based on his judgment. Generally, the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court sit on the judgment of a district court judge who does not currently occupy the seat of the Chief Justice.
To keep things fair, any rules that apply to one judge should apply to all judges in a district. If single-judge divisions are so bad, cases should be reallocated to all single-judge divisions. And if Congress were to enact legislation, such rules should apply across the country, and not just in Texas. Better yet, perhaps judges from the shores could station themselves in the heartland to dispense justice from sea to shining-sea. They can start by traveling to the border to process a never-ending backlog of illegal re-entry cases. Brownsville is beautiful this time of year.