In the United States, an administrative law judge, or ALJ, serves as the judge and trier of fact who presides over administrative hearings. ALJs have the power to administer oaths, make rulings on evidentiary objections, and render legal and factual determinations. ALJs are appointed pursuant to the Administrative Procedure Act of 1946 (APA). To be appointed as an ALJ, attorneys must complete a four-hour written examination and undertake an oral examination before a panel. The panel is made up of representatives from the American Bar Association, the Office of Personnel Management, and a current federal ALJ. The ALJ appointment proceeding is the only one based on merit in the United States. Once appointed, ALJs may only be removed for cause. Complaints against ALJs regarding the performance of their duties are filed with the Merit Systems Protection Board.
Many federal administrative agencies have numerous administrative law judges. The Social Security Administration sees roughly 700,000 cases each year, necessitating a roster of 1,400 ALJs. Other federal agencies with ALJs include the Department of Labor, the Department of the Interior, the Department of Agriculture, and the Drug Enforcement Agency. Federal agencies that do not maintain ALJs can request an ALJ from the United States Office of Personnel Management. Once a request is submitted, the Office of Personnel Management will send an ALJ from another federal agency to the requesting agency for a period of six months.
The Roles of Administrative Law Judges
Most people consider ALJs to be part of the executive branch as opposed to the judicial branch. Despite this, the APA imbues ALJs with substantial decisional independence and provides them with immunity from any liability stemming from their judicial acts. Contrary to popular belief, ALJs operate independently from the agencies that are involved in particular disputes. If the Department of Defense is a party to an administrative proceeding, the agency may not have any ex parte communications with the ALJ or influence the ALJ’s decision by improper means. The APA includes many provisions to ensure that ALJs are not pressured by other parties or agency officials.
In general, ALJs are afforded the same scope of authority as traditional courtroom judges. One major difference between ALJs and traditional judges is that ALJs serve as both the judge and trier of fact. This is known as a bench trial. In civil court, the parties sometimes have the option of choosing to forgo a jury and have the judge weigh the factual evidence that the parties provide. During an administrative hearing, however, the ALJ will always weigh the evidence and make factual determinations.
Most states have enacted a body of laws that mirrors the federal Administrative Procedures Act. At the state level, the power given to ALJs varies. Some state-level ALJs function much like federal ALJs, exercising broad independent authority over the matters pending before them. In some contexts, ALJs are afforded minimal power and authority, and their decisions are treated more as recommendations. Although some states, including California, maintain a separate corps of ALJs for each agency, some states have created a single agency that provides ALJs to preside over hearings. The latter format is known as the central panel agency.