Administrative Law Judges — a character for you?

As a practicing lawyer, I meet judges in the courtroom, or the less formal and more cluttered setting of their offices, known as “chambers.” At Bouchercon 2011 in St. Louis, I met judge and mystery writer Debra H. Goldstein in the casual atmosphere of a Sisters in Crime presentation. Today, Debra offers writers an insight into the work of a little-known part of the judiciary, the Administrative Law Judge.

Fictional trials often are presided over by black-robed judges sitting in wood-paneled courtrooms in stately old courthouses. Many writers fail to distinguish whether it is a state or federal trial or if the judge actually would hear the subject matter of the case. Occasionally, the type of judge and jurisdictional area becomes the cause of a character’s dilemma. In Miracle on 34th Street, the judge’s political advisor makes it clear that the judge’s decision whether Kris Kringle is Santa Claus directly impacts his state court re-election chances, but most of the time writers are silent as to these details. As a federal Administrative Law Judge, I cringe when writers have fictional judges hear matters outside the scope of their authority, but it does help me remain one of the best kept secrets in the federal judiciary.

Federal Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) preside at trials between government agencies and individuals affected by decisions made by that agency. Unlike Article III judges who are appointed under Article III of the US Constitution and confirmed by the Senate, ALJs are merit-appointed Article I judges whose authority and insulation from political influence comes from the Administrative Procedures Act of 1946 (APA). They hear cases when a person or corporation exhausts all administrative remedies and asks for a hearing.

There are approximately 1400 federal Administrative Law Judges. Over 1200 of them hear Social Security Administration cases while the remainder handle matters arising from thirty-one other agencies. These APA-sanctioned cases include areas such as Occupational Safety and Health, National Labor Relations, and Federal Aviation. Each ALJ is an independent impartial trier of fact who makes decisions after considering the documentary evidence, oral testimony, and applicable law. Depending upon the agency involved, ALJ decisions may be appealed to an agency appellate court or directly to federal district court.

In a sense, the ALJ level protects the next level of federal district courts from being overwhelmed by a flood of regulatory cases. For example, in 2010, there were 3.2 million Social Security claims filed. Of these, about 15-18% requested a de novo hearing–meaning a new hearing or trial, after exhausting all administrative remedies. Most Social Security ALJs handle and dispose of 500-700 cases a year, with each case having an average value of $250,000.

Because a federal ALJ is appointed rather than elected; is restricted in terms of political activities by the Hatch Act; and may only be removed for good cause, Administrative Law Judges serve long careers outside the public’s radar. In addition to the federal ALJs, almost every state has some form of ALJ program, although state ALJs, who may claims of employment or housing discrimination, claims related to child support enforcement, and claims related to other state benefits, generally lack the insulation from political influence and guarantee of judicial independence that federal ALJs have. But whether federal or state, administrative law judges hear the stories of people’s lives.

As a sitting ALJ, I don’t write from the viewpoint of my present job, but my experiences as a judge and former litigator, coupled with those of my friends, do provide inspiration for crimes and courtroom settings. I just try to make sure if my characters go to trial, I put the right judge and subject matter together in my fictitious wood-paneled courtroom.

As the title of her first mystery, Maze in Blue, suggests, Debra H. Goldstein is a University of Michigan graduate, although she headed south and got a law degree from Emory University. She’s a former labor litigator, and now sits as an Administrative Law Judge in Birmingham, Alabama. Visit Debra through her blog — Leslie will be a guest in late May — or her website.

6 thoughts on “Administrative Law Judges — a character for you?

  1. This was a great look from both an ALJ’s viewpoint, and I’m going to have to read your book as well. I’ve had hearings before administrative judges on environmental issues mostly, and now that I’ve moved on into intellectual property it is much less, but I found those hearings actually more challenging in many ways as the hearing examiner generally was a specialist in the subject area, instead of a general practitioner. Kudos! Also, great blog.

    • Iona: appreciate your comments. I know exactly what you mean about the ALJ’s level of expertise when you come try a case in a specialized forum vs. in front of a judge whose docket is more varied. I’m with Leslie when it comes to IP -definitely a developing area of law. Debra

  2. My mother was an ALJ in New York City for two agencies, neither of them federal: the state Environmental Control Board and the city Parking Violations Bureau. I had no idea that there were federal ALJs as well.

    She let me sit in on one of her hearings. I remember how all the ALJs had these tiny, nondescript offices in which to listen to the people who had come in to appeal their tickets. Mom had a tape recorder to record the testimony and after the hearing she would fill out a form giving her ruling and explaining why.

    • Michael, welcome, and thanks for sharing your memory. One of the most chilling things I’ve ever heard was the tape of a Social Security hearing–in an office across the street from the federal bldg in Oklahoma City when it blew up. No one in the hearing was physically injured, but they were all survivors nonetheless.

    • Michael:
      That is one of the many differences between many federal and state aljs. Many titles like hearing examiner and administrative judge have been given to federal agency people who pretty much sit in offices like you describe the state agency experience your mother had. There is a distinction in terms of appointment, salary, and actual function for those in the federal system who are Administrative Law Judges. That word Law in the middle helps to distinguish the limited amount of these Article 1 judges. As for my hearings….they are held in a full size courtroom with a court reporter and witnesses. I sit behind an upraised bench and finish the trimmings by having a black robe. Those who appear in front of me truly know they are having a de novo experience separate from any administrative agency proceedings they previously had.

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