For as long as I can remember, the Southern District of New York has used a delightfully antiquated method for assigning judges: spinning a wooden wheel. Over time, the wheel of justice gained notoriety in pop culture, making appearances in the Tom Brady “deflategate” saga and on Showtime’s Billions. It was even used to select the unlucky judge who oversaw Khalid Shaikh Mohammed’s 9/11 trial. It’s regarded with a mixture of fatalism and awe by the circuit’s judges. “A beautiful thing,” Denise Cote once remarked.
Alas, the legend isn’t exactly accurate, at least not anymore. I got the dirty truth from Katherine Forrest, a former federal judge who is now a partner at Paul Weiss. “The wooden wheels,” she told me, “have given way to computers that do random assignments.”
I began considering the mysteries of judicial matchmaking earlier this year, while following other major S.D.N.Y. cases, including Trump’s battle to move the Manhattan D.A.’s criminal case there; a 78-year-old semi-retired judge weighing Sam Bankman-Fried’s fate; and another judge on the same circuit, Kevin Castel, wrestling with how to handle a pair of lawyers who cited ChatGPT-invented case precedent in a personal injury suit. Then, just a few days ago, I came across an intriguing court order by Judge Louis Stanton, directing a dispute between radio stations and the American Society of Composers and Publishers (ASCAP) to the “standard electronic method of selection of a Judge.” Wait, what happened to the wheel?