The Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation first came about when Earl Warren, then chief justice of the United States, appointed a committee of federal judges in 1961 to hear about 2,000 antitrust lawsuits that had been filed against several electrical-equipment manufacturers. In 1968, Congress passed a law formally creating the panel.

Under the statute, the chief justice appoints seven district or circuit judges, no two of whom can be from the same circuit. A decade ago, then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist changed the rules so that judges were appointed for a term of seven years.

Until that time, the panel had been filled primarily by senior judges, said U.S. District Judge William Terrell Hodges, a former chairman of the MDL panel. “The chief just wanted to have additional experience on the panel — spread it around and give more judges in various circuits an opportunity to serve and participate,” he said.

The panel hears oral argument about every other month, each time at a different location. Most times, the hearing lasts one morning.

The panel decides whether a group of cases should be consolidated for pretrial discovery purposes and, if so, which court or judge should hear the consolidated action. Oral arguments usually last no more than 20 minutes per docket, although the cases against BP PLC and Toyota Motor Corp. recalls lasted much longer.

The panel makes its decision usually within eight to 16 weeks.

— Amanda Bronstad