Cantwell, Collins Introduce Bipartisan Bill Protecting Independence of Administrative Law Judges

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Susan Collins (R-ME) introduced bipartisan legislation to protect the impartiality and independence of the nation’s administrative law judges. The ALJ Competitive Service Restoration Act ensures that these judges are selected for their qualifications and competence, not their political views. 

“Administrative law judges perform very important roles for Social Security and Medicare benefit cases, and it’s essential that they remain independent and not politically influenced in making decisions,” Senator Cantwell said. “These judges work on enormously important issues. They should be knowledgeable about the subject area they’re overseeing and without any conflict of interest.” 

“Administrative law judges are tasked with making important decisions every day; they are intensely vetted and put through a competitive application process before being hired,” said Senator Collins. “Our bipartisan legislation would ensure that administrative law judges remain well qualified and impartial so that this crucial process remains nonpartisan and fair.” 

Traditionally, each federal agency has hired its own administrative law judges from a list of qualified candidates provided by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). However, in July 2018, President Trump issued an executive order to reclassify administrative law judges, allowing for them to be selected on the basis of their political views rather than by their qualifications, merit, and independence. Administrative law judges serve until they are removed or choose to leave the agency. 

"The Association of Administrative Law Judges thank Senators Cantwell and Collins for sponsoring this critical legislation,” said Judge Melissa McIntosh, the President of the Association of Administrative Law Judges. “The majority of all ALJs in the federal sector work at the Social Security Administration and are represented by our Association. We are deeply committed to ensuring the due process rights of American citizens. This legislation preserves the independence of ALJs by restoring the rigorous and competitive selection of judges based solely on merit. Political influence has no place in our hearing rooms." 

The Cantwell-Collins bill restores administrative law judges to the “competitive service” – a classification of federal civil service based on a fair and equal performance examination administered by OPM. This competitive process ensures that administrative law judges are selected on their qualifications and competence, unlike political appointees who aren’t subject to the same criteria. 

“The International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers applauds and thanks both Senators Cantwell and Collins for authoring this much needed, bipartisan bill. If passed and signed into law, this legislation would protect against the politicization of our administrative judiciary in agencies across the federal government by overturning the misguided Executive Order 13843. If permitted to stand, this Executive Order will open the door wide for political appointees at agencies to hire Administrative Law Judges based on political leanings, versus our current federal ALJs who have been hired based on years of experience, and after extensive vetting. At the end of the day, we need to preserve the due process rights of the American public by protecting the independent decision making of our nation’s ALJs and this bill achieves that. IFPTE is proud to support it,” said Matt Biggs, Secretary-Treasurer/Legislative Director for the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE). 

Like courtroom judges, administrative law judges hold hearings, find facts, and render decisions in entitlement, regulatory, and enforcement cases. Also like courtroom judges, they need to be highly qualified, impartial, independent, and free from political bias. There are 1,900 administrative law judges across the government’s independent agencies and executive departments. These judges approve license applications and hear cases involving everything from stock fraud claims to whether people are entitled to benefits such as Social Security, Medicare, and worker’s compensation. 

The ALJ Competitive Service Restoration Act also codifies the Supreme Court’s 2018 decision in Lucia v. SEC that the final appointment of an administrative law judge be made by an agency head and not by lower agency officials, adding that this appointment can be made only from a list provided by OPM or with the approval of OPM. Companion legislation has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by U.S. Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD 7th).