As lower courts have wrestled with how to apply Bruen over the past seven-plus months, a small group of federal district court judges has issued some of the highest-profile Second Amendment decisions regarding state laws passed in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision.
This is due in large part to the presence of “related case,” transfer, and case consolidation rules. Specific rules vary by federal district, but the “related case” process generally requires an attorney filing a new case to alert court personnel if the case may involve similar legal or factual questions as another case pending before the same court. Once such a filing is made, or if the matter is otherwise identified as potentially related to an existing case, it is normally referred directly to the judge presiding over the existing case—who is then typically empowered to independently determine whether to accept assignment of the new case as related, for efficiency reasons. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and district-specific rules, also often provide judges with broad authority to transfer or consolidate related cases before a single judge in the district.
For example, Judge Glenn Suddaby of the Northern District of New York has issued three opinions regarding the constitutionality of New York’s post-Bruen gun regulations. Most recently, Judge Suddaby granted a preliminary injunction of large portions of the law in a decision currently on appeal to the Second Circuit. Judge Suddaby presided over the entirety of the Antonyuk litigation, despite the fact the claims were dismissed and then re-filed in a new case with a different set of plaintiffs. As the judge explained in a footnote in his preliminary injunction opinion, “the Court accepted the assignment of this case as being ‘related’ to Antonyuk I under General Order 12 of this District” because the two cases “involve almost entirely the same legal issues.” General Order 12 provides that, in the event of a new filing that is potentially related to an existing case, “the Clerk shall advise the Judge with the earliest filed case for review and determination as to whether the new case is related, and whether the action(s) should be reassigned as related cases.” That judge has sole authority to deem the case related and direct the clerk to re-assign the case, based on the judge’s relatedness determination.
Similarly, Judge John Sinatra of the Western District of New York issued no less than three major Second Amendment decisions regarding portions of the same New York law, in November and December of last year. Judge Sinatra struck down the state’s ban on guns in places of worship (we covered one of those decisions here), and its private-property default rule. Christian v. Nigrelli, a challenge to the private-property rule, was originally randomly assigned to Judge William Skretny before being re-assigned to Judge Sinatra in September, who was already presiding over challenges to the “place of worship” ban at that time. In New Jersey, Chief District Judge Renée Bumb has issued two major decisions on challenges to the state’s post-Bruen gun law. We covered Judge Bumb’s decision in Koons v. Reynolds here, and she subsequently struck down additional provisions of the New Jersey law on January 30 in Siegel v. Platkin. Siegel was originally assigned to Judge Karen Williams, but was then consolidated with the Koons matter after motion practice (even though the two cases were filed simultaneously), because Judge Williams found that the Koons litigation was “more developed” at the time.
There are several reasons why exempting related cases from the normal process of random assignment can be beneficial—and these normative considerations are often invoked when judges justify accepting related cases, or the decision to transfer or consolidate such cases. Placing related matters before a single judge is efficient because that judge may already have developed familiarity and expertise with the legal and factual issues at hand, and may be able to decide the case quicker than a judge starting from scratch. Moreover, allowing similar cases to proceed side-by-side in front of different judges in the same district might waste judicial resources and risk conflicting outcomes. To the extent there is overlap among the parties and lawyers in two or more related cases, consolidating them before a single judge likely lowers the burden on those groups (as well as non-party witnesses) by streamlining litigation. These are real benefits not easily brushed aside, especially in some of the most overburdened and understaffed federal districts in the country. For example, in 2021 there were 26,212 civil cases filed in the district of New Jersey and the district had 39,189 civil cases pending. Those numbers were higher than the corresponding civil case counts across all judicial districts within the First and Fourth Circuits combined (there are 15 active judges in the district of New Jersey, and approximately 75 active district judges in those two circuits).
However, it’s also important to consider the potential negative consequences of allowing a single judge to exert outsized influence in a particular legal area by essentially preempting other judges in the district from hearing similar cases. In a 2014 article, Katherine Macfarlane detailed how a random 1999 case assignment allowed Judge Shira Scheindlin of the Southern District of New York to “h[o]ld court over an uninterrupted stream of additional and equally landmark stop-and-frisk cases, but not through random case assignment procedures.” Judge Scheindlin accepted the assignment of related cases in subsequent years and thus exerted substantial control and influence over litigation against the NYPD’s “stop-and-frisk” tactics, ultimately issuing a highly-publicized injunction in 2013.
Related-case rules that provide unhindered discretion to the judge in the earlier-filed case to either accept or reject the assignment carry a number of potential risks. For one, judges may choose to disproportionately accept cases in which they are personally invested or where they have strong personal feelings about the subject matter—threatening the neutrality of the judicial function. As described in a 2007 Texas Law Review article, there is substantial evidence that the composition of Fifth Circuit appellate panels in the early 1960s was manipulated to create pro-civil-rights majorities. While this occurred at the appellate, rather than the trial, level, the fundamental concern is the same: when judges themselves have discretion to select cases for their own docket, they are not likely to do so in an impartial manner. Judges without a personal interest in a particular legal area may be more likely to allow cases randomly assigned to them to be re-assigned or transferred, perhaps without a thorough examination of the amount of overlap with an existing case.
Second, because “no other judge has the opportunity to hear landmark  cases, the judge who does hear the cases has the opportunity to shape the law in the same manner an appellate court would.” Macfarlane makes this observation in the stop-and-frisk context, and proposes that the reasons for all case assignment decisions be made public, that related-case rules be revised to provide some oversight of a judge’s determination of relatedness (rather than allowing the judge alone to decide), and that related-case determinations be subject to motion practice.
To focus on one particular issue Macfarlane identifies, related-case rules and case consolidation practices seem especially likely to transform certain district court judges into quasi-appellate “courts of one” in the Second Amendment context. When challenging state gun regulations, plaintiffs can simply choose to bring suit in the same judicial district with confidence that (as Judge Suddaby and Judge Sinatra did) a judge presiding over an existing case will accept related-case assignments of future challenges to parts of the same state law. This means that challenges to the New York and New Jersey post-Bruen gun laws are likely to go to the federal appellate level having been passed upon by only a small subset of district court judges (in New Jersey’s case, perhaps only by a single judge).
In stop-and-frisk litigation, Macfarlane observed that “[a] difference in opinion [at the district court level] may have guided the Second Circuit’s, and ultimately the Supreme Court’s, analysis of a complicated area of the law.” The same is true of post-Bruen challenges to state gun regulations, given the novel legal test set forth by the Supreme Court. Especially when different portions of a broad statute are challenged, as in the ongoing sensitive-places litigation in New York and New Jersey, it is important for these cases of major public interest to be distributed to different district judges and this advantage likely outweighs any efficiency which may result from consolidation. In Bruen, the Court declared that “reasoning by analogy [is] a commonplace task for any . . . judge.” If so, there’s no obvious benefit to assigning a new case challenging different portions of a statutory scheme to the existing-case judge, as the new case will involve different analogical reasoning (which all federal judges are well-equipped to conduct). This is certainly true when, as in Siegel, emergency motion practice about whether the case should be consolidated in the first place largely negates any resource-conserving benefit. Efficiency, important though it indisputably is, cannot be determinative in every instance and thus destroy the chance of divergent analyses which might help to drive doctrinal development at the appellate level.