Braddock Questions Administrative Law Judge System

Article excerpt

There is no uniformity in how administrative law judges are hired or appointed by state agencies, nor in their required qualifications or salary, says Rep. David B. Braddock, D-Altus.

Braddock told the Oklahoma House Administrative Rule Review Committee Thursday that some administrative law judges are required to be attorneys while some are not, and pay may range from an hourly rate of $20 or so to $70,000 per year. Some are employed via contracts, others hired directly by a state agency.

A staff analysis of administrative law judge contracts showed contract amounts ranging from $1,500 to $35,000 for the agencies concerned. Some individuals serve only as administrative law judges, others are hearing examiners and still others have additional duties. "Sometimes administrative law judges are paid by the agency," Braddock said. "It gives a person the sense that they are not being dealt with fairly."

In other situations, Braddock added, the administrative law judge can be in an uncomfortable spot. "The administrative law judge could be ruling against the person that signs his or her check."

Last session, Braddock and Sen. Brad Henry, D-Shawnee, introduced Senate Bill 803, which would have created an Administrative Hearings Panel to exercise the judicial authority of state boards, agencies and commissions. Its chief presiding officer would have been appointed by the governor for a six-year term, with the advice and consent of the Senate. The measure also provided for an administrator, administrative hearing officers and temporary administrative hearing officers. The panel would have had jurisdiction over cases and other matters assigned to it by law or administrative rule or referred by an administrative agency. Its decisions would be appealable to the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

Senate attorney Mark Ramsey said that when last session's bill was under consideration, research revealed that 16 states had adopted this type of system, with another three reviewing the idea.

The measure received a "report progress" motion from the House committee, which stalled it for the session.

On Thursday, Braddock said that Senate Bill 803 was just a starting point for discussion, but he believes something needs to be done to counter the perception of partiality on the part of administrative law judges.

"We certainly don't want to create a new agency," he said.

Braddock added that oversight of the judges could be placed under an existing agency or department. As for funding, he said he envisions transferring the funding currently spent on administrative law judges to the chosen agency, or the affected agencies could pay into a pool.

House Speaker Pro Tempore Emeritus Jim Glover, D-Elgin, said that Braddock's idea sounds more like some type of arbitrator rather than an administrative law judge. He questioned whether such an individual would have the agency-specific expertise required of administrative law judges.

Braddock said that he thinks the process could be designed so that the judges do have the necessary knowledge. In fact, he added, if current administrative law judges are qualified, they could be utilized under the new system.

"It's a question of impartial justice," he said.

Braddock told Rep. Forrest Claunch, R-Midwest City, he believes that with appropriate selection criteria the judges appointed by the independent agency could "come up to speed" even on the complex rules and regulations of entities such as the Oklahoma Tax Commission. …

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