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Republicans push back on new federal court policy aimed at 'judge shopping' in national cases

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., talks after a policy luncheon on Capitol Hill Tuesday, March 12, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Republicans took aim Thursday at a new federal courts policy trying to curb “judge shopping,” a practice that gained national attention in a major abortion medication case.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell spoke out against it on the Senate floor and joined with two other GOP senators to send letters to a dozen chief judges around the country suggesting they don’t have to follow it.

The courts’ policy calls for cases with national implications to get random judge assignments, even in smaller divisions where all cases filed locally go before a single judge. In those single-judge divisions, critics say private or state attorneys can essentially pick which judge will hear their case, including suits that can affect the whole country.

Interest groups of all kinds have long tried 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 a judge appointed by former President Donald Trump who is a former attorney for a religious-liberty legal group that championed conservative causes.

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

Cases seeking national injunctions have been on the rise in recent years, and Senate Republicans have sought to pare back that practice, McConnell said. But said he called the court's new approach an “unforced error."

"I hope they will reconsider. And I hope district courts throughout the country will instead weigh what is best for their jurisdictions, not half-baked ‘guidance’ that just does Washington Democrats’ bidding,” he said.

The policy was adopted by U.S. Judicial Conference, the governing body for federal courts. It is made up of 26 judges, 15 of whom were appointed by Republican presidents, and is presided over by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.

It was announced by Judge Jeff Sutton, who serves on the Cincinnati-based 6th Circuit Court of Appeals and serves as chair of the serves as chair of the conference’s executive committee. Sutton was appointed by President George W. Bush and clerked for late Justice Antonin Scalia.

Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and Thom Tillis of North Carolina joined McConnell in letters to chief justices in affected areas, saying the law allows district courts to set their own rules.

Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, have applauded the policy change, with Schumer saying it would “go a long way to restoring public confidence in judicial rulings.”

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Associated Press writer Mark Sherman contributed to this report.