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In U.S. federal district courts, how is the judge chosen to handle a particular case? Are judges randomly assigned to cases? Or are they chosen based on their expertise in certain areas of law?

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The exact procedure varies from one district to the next, but generally speaking, it is essentially by lottery. The procedure is typically spelled out in the court's local rules. Jump to page 105 of SDNY's local rules for an example.

The lottery system is not entirely random, though. Frequently it is weighted to make it more likely that a case is assigned to a judge from the district's courthouse nearest to the parties, or to make it less likely to be assigned to the chief judge or a judge on senior status.

There are then various other rules governing assignments of cases to new judges or visiting judges, but those typically don't happen when a case is originally filed.

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  • Surely the rules also make provisions for conflicts of interest or other grounds for recusal.
    – phoog
    Jun 12 '20 at 14:05
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    I've never seen local rules that do that. The assignment happens mostly randomly, blind to the possibility of a possible conflict. From there, it's up to the parties and the judge to identify and address conflicts, which is done mostly using a separate body of law. If the judge does recuse, though, I would typically expect the local rules to spell out what happens next.
    – bdb484
    Jun 12 '20 at 19:52
  • This is a bit of a nitpick but randomness does not imply every unit (judge) has an equal probability of being selected. A coin more likely to land on heads is still entirely random in nature.
    – eps
    Jun 13 '20 at 2:04
  • FYI - At one time there was a program to train some volunteer district court judges in patent law and deferentially steer cases to them in an interest to have more uniform results at that level. Jun 13 '20 at 5:29

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