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Hearing Examiner

An employee of an ADMINISTRATIVE AGENCY who is charged with conducting adjudicative proceedings on matters within the scope of the jurisdiction of the agency.

Hearing examiners are employees of federal, state, and local administrative agencies who act as judges to resolve conflicts that are within the jurisdiction of their particular agency. Hearing examiners have also been called hearing officers, and since the 1980s, they are commonly referred to as ADMINISTRATIVE LAW judges (ALJs).

The growth of administrative law started with the creation of the federal INTERSTATE COMMERCE COMMISSION and the FEDERAL TRADE COMMISSION in the late nineteenth century. Administrative law burgeoned in the 1930s, as President FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT's NEW DEAL policies led to the establishment of EXECUTIVE BRANCH agencies that were charged with regulating the economy and overseeing social welfare policies. Since the 1930s, all levels of government have established administrative agencies.

ALJs are governed by the Administrative Procedure Act (5 U.S.C.A. § 551 et seq. [1966]). They are appointed through a professional merit selection system that requires high test scores and, in many instances, experience in the particular regulatory program in which they wish to serve. Once appointed, ALJs may not be removed or disciplined, except for good cause. These parameters are meant to shield administrative law from political appointments and political pressure.

Hearing examiners serve in different adjudicative areas and are involved in all types of government activity, from the administration of environmental regulations to the review of UNEMPLOYMENT COMPENSATION claims. For example, when an agency is charged with issuing permits, appropriate procedures are set out in administrative regulations. If there are objections to the granting of a permit, a hearing may be held to determine the merits of the application. A hearing examiner conducts the hearing, enforces appropriate RULES OF EVIDENCE and procedure, and issues a decision. This decision may be appealed to a higher level of authority in the agency, and if that does not resolve the issue, to a court proceeding in the judicial branch.

Even though they are not as insulated from political pressures as judicial branch judges, hearing examiners seek to maintain their independence. During the Reagan administration, in the 1980s, this independence was challenged in the Social Security Administration's (SSA's) disability review section. SSA officials, concerned with perceived inconsistencies and inaccuracies in disability rulings, singled out for review federal ALJs who rendered the highest percentage of decisions favorable to claimants. The review program received much criticism for allegedly putting subtle pressure on the ALJs to rule against claimants more often. Though the most intrusive features of the program were abandoned, the program itself served as a reminder that ALJs were part of an administrative agency and not independent, judicial branch decision makers.

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