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In the United States, an administrative law judge or ALJ, is a judge who is designated to preside over trials, proceedings and hearings involving claims or disputes involving administrative law. An administrative law judge functions in essentially the same manner as a judge presiding in a court in the judicial system although with more limited authority.
There are a number of unique features associated with being an administrative law judge on the federal level. The same holds true for administrative law judges that serve in different states across the United States.
The Federal Administrative Law Judge Appointment Process
The appointment of federal administrative law judges is governed by a law called the Administrative Procedure Act of 1946. The law requires that administrative law judges be appointed via a comprehensive testing process. The law also spells out the basic components of that testing system associated with the appointment of administrative law judges by the federal government in the United States.
The testing process itself includes a written examination that lasts for about four hours. There is also an oral testing component as well.
The oral examination is taken before a panel consisting of specific governmental employees. The panel must include a representative of the Office of Personnel Management and a representative of the American Bar Association. The panel must also include a currently serving administrative law judge.
Federal administrative law judges usually are considered to be part of the executive branch of government rather than the judicial branch. The process of appointing administrative law judges is undertaken within the executive branch.
Typically, an administrative law judge has a juris doctorate degree, particularly on the federal level. There are positions in different states that do not necessarily require this level of education. However, having a legal education is beneficial to a person serving in the capacity of an administrative law judge because of the need to apply specific laws and governmental regulations.
Authority of Federal Administrative Law Judge
The authority of administrative law judges is limited. They do not have the same breadth of authority of judges serving in courtrooms within the federal or state judicial systems. Administrative law judges preside over specific cases involving application of certain administrative laws.
For example, administrative law judges in the Social Security Administration preside over cases in which individuals are seeking to obtain certain types of benefits from the Social Security Administration.
Merit System and the Administrative Law Judge
Administrative law judges are part of a merit system. They cannot be forced or removed from their jobs without appropriate or due cause. Provided they maintain the requirements of their office, the merit system prevents administrative law judges from removal from office. In other words, once an administrative law judge makes it through the initial screening process and is appointed to office, the term of service is indefinite.
Independence of Administrative Law Judge
An administrative law judge is an independent hearing officer. An administrative law judge is not subject to supervision by other employees in the agency in which that individual presides over administrative proceedings. The independence is central to an administrative law judge’s ability to make independent and unbiased decisions.
In essential terms, no other employee of an agency, including the agency chief, are legally able to influence or dictate the decisions of an administrative law judge. If that occurs, a violation of the law has occurred and can have serious consequences on those involved as well as the status of the subject case.
Appeals from an Administrative Law Judge
In the federal system, an administrative law judge does not have the ultimate say in a case. Once an administrative law judge has made a determination in a specific case, a party to that case can appeal that decision. Typically, the initial appeal goes to the agency head.
Once the agency head has made a decision in the appeal of a particular case, a party who is not satisfied with that determination has the ability to appeal into the judicial system. The initial appeal goes to a district court judge.
Further appeals in the federal system can go to the United States Court of Appeals and then to the Supreme Court. There can be deviations in this general system depending on the governmental agency involved in the process. For example, some agencies maintain a multi-step appeals process within the agency itself before a case moves into the judicial system for further review.
State Administrative Law Judges
Unlike in the federal system, not all states utilize a merit system in the selection of administrative law judges. In some jurisdictions, administrative law judges are appointed without specific regard to specifically delineated criteria. These can include individuals who are selected to serve as administrative law judges by an elected official.
Two types of systems exist on the state level regarding the manner in which administrative law judges are organized. In some states, a specific state agency is charged with overseeing all administrative law judges serving in that jurisdiction. The common agency oversees the assignment of administrative law judges to preside at hearings for other departments and agencies in the state system.
In other states, each department or agency that undertakes administrative proceedings or one type or another has its own cadre or administrative law judges. There is no central agency charged with overseeing administrative law judges in the state governmental system.
Professional Organizations for an Administrative Law Judge
A number of different organizations and associations exist for an administrative law judge. These include the Federal Administrative Law Judges Conference and the Association of Administrative Law Judges. The Association represents only Social Security administrative law judges.
Other organizations for administrative law judges include the Forum of United States Administrative Law Judges, the National Association of Administrative Law Judiciary, the American Bar Association, National Conference of Administrative Law Judiciary and the National Association of Hearing Officials. Some of these organizations permit federal and state administrative law judges into their groups while others focus on those in service to one or another level or government.
Jan Dils, Attorneys at Law