Lawmakers Discuss Protections for Administrative Law Judges

Administrative law judges (ALJs) in Utah have an interesting dilemma on their hands.

So said legislators during the Judiciary Interim Committee meeting on Oct. 17. Unlike federal ALJs, whose powers are secured by federal statute, state ALJs’ power varies widely from state to state. Some ALJ positions are classified as at will, some ALJs are referred to as “Your Honor” and wear judge-like robes, and others wear business suits. In Utah, ALJs are career-service employees, hired by agencies to settle disputes or claims involving administrative law.

An ALJ’s role varies depending on the power of the agency hiring the ALJ, said Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City. The agency that hires an ALJ has the power to not only hire, but also to fire, and has some say in determining salary.

“Where is the public trust and confidence in ALJs?” Hall asked Rebecca Parr, a Department of Human Resources (DHRM) director. He continued by asking what would stop an agency from firing an ALJ simply because he or she ruled against the agency in a case.

Because ALJs are career-service employees, they can participate in the grievance process if something like that were to happen, Parr said.

While the grievance process is an excellent right granted to all career-service employees, ALJs are still potentially vulnerable to coming across cases that interfere with their ability to make fair decisions independent from the agency they work for.

Hall asked DHRM to consider adding a structure or policy that would allow ALJs to act without fear of retribution. Parr said the agency will investigate this issue and report back to the committee before the legislative session begins.