2014—What could possibly explain notorious liberal activist Stephen Reinhardt’s seemingly amazing propensity to be selected to sit on important Ninth Circuit cases with a strong ideological valence? Buried in a New York Times article is some very surprising news that provides a partial answer.
For “cases on a fast track, like the marriage case” that challenged Nevada’s and Idaho’s laws, the Ninth Circuit clerk’s office, “[u]ntil recently,” assigned cases “to the available panel with the most senior presiding judge.” As the article notes, “Judge Reinhardt, who was appointed by President Jimmy Carter, is one of the most senior active judges and so was disproportionately likely to be the presiding judge.”
This news is very surprising for at least three reasons. First, there is nothing in the Ninth Circuit’s rules or general orders that revealed the existence of this practice. Second, it is difficult to discern any justification for this departure from randomness. Third, this practice was not even commonly known among Ninth Circuit judges who had concerns about Reinhardt’s remarkable good fortune in assignments.
One other peculiarity: According to a letter from the party challenging the assignment of judges in the marriage case, the Ninth Circuit did not in fact use that “recently revealed ‘different procedure’” when it originally assigned a panel to the case. This deviation is consistent with concerns that the clerk’s office has had a great deal of unsupervised discretion in assigning cases—and that its abuse of that discretion may be more broadly responsible for Reinhardt’s astounding good luck in case assignments.