On July 10, the White House released an executive order ending a merit-based system for selecting federal administrative law judges, including those who hear Social Security cases—or about 1,600 of roughly 2,000 federal administrative law judges (ALJs).
Americans are far more likely during their lifetime to encounter an ALJ than any other type of federal judge. Last year alone, judges who adjudicate Social Security cases conducted 605,483 hearings, according to agency statistics. What sorts of cases are heard? You would face an ALJ if you had a problem with the dollar amount in your Social Security retirement account; if there were a question about who is eligible to receive a deceased person’s benefits; or if, because of a workplace accident, injury or illness, you found yourself unable to work and you applied for disability benefits.
In every instance, you would want to know that the judge hearing your case was both competent and impartial. This might no longer be the case as a result of the executive order. Until this month, federal agencies hired ALJ candidates with at least seven years of litigation experience; they are also required to take a six-part examination conducted by the Office of Personnel Management. Now an agency that wants to employ an ALJ can recruit any attorney regardless of skill or experience. Some fear that this will lead to cronyism and political interference.
The executive order is in response to the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Lucia v. Securities and Exchange Commission, which overturned a decision by an administrative law judge at the SEC on a technicality, arguing that the judge had not been properly appointed.
After the ruling, many agencies, including the Labor Department and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, had already taken steps to reappoint their judges to avoid any possible conflict.
You can find an op-ed on the issue at The Washington Post.