NC Hosts 2019 State Administrative Law Judge Central Panel Directors National Conference

By Ann B. Wall

North Carolina was recently the site of a national conference that, it is hoped, will improve the managerial efficiency of Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) central panel operations across the country.  The State Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) Central Panel Directors National Conference (CPDC) was hosted by Julian Mann, III, co-chair of the National Conference, as well as Director and Chief Judge of North Carolina’s own central panel, the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH).

Issues common to central panels have either already arisen in North Carolina, or may yet arise here.  Such issues may be appropriate for discussion by the Administrative Law Section as we look to the future of administrative law in North Carolina.

“Central panels are panels of [ALJs] who, instead of being attached to a single administrative agency, are assigned to a “central,” “independent” panel that supplies [ALJs] to conduct contested case hearings for a variety of agencies.” Hon. W. Michael Gillette, “ALJ Central Panels: How is it Going Out There?”, The NJC Experience (September 17, 2015),  The alternative to a central panel is a system such as that of the federal government, in which ALJs are employees of the agencies whose cases they adjudicate.

Changing Scope of the ALJs’ Work

There appeared to be a consensus among conference attendees that the duties of ALJs are increasing, along with an increase in the scope and complexity of the cases before their administrative tribunals.  This increase in duties is thought to be attributable in part to the increase in the actual number of complex cases filed and tried to conclusion.  A logical conclusion is that, in order to effectively handle these cases, the current technology and case management software used by the judges and their staff must increase in efficiency to handle the volume of cases and complexity.

Learning from the States

Georgia has developed and implemented a web-based case management system.  The system’s Public Access Module includes a mobile application compatible with Android and iOS, that is available on Google Play and in the Apple Store.  Agencies can use the platform to submit hearing requests directly to the Georgia Office of State Administrative Hearings through an online portal.  Georgia’s goals include updates to incorporate fully functional automation.

Alaska and North Carolina led a session on issues concerning efficient handling of contested Medicaid appeals.  It included a summary of North Carolina’s model of addressing Medicaid recipient appeals with a disposition average time of less than 30 days.  Also discussed were: the impact of Medicaid expansion and transformation on central ALJ panels; audits; streamlining mediation programs; state and federal regulatory reform (to include oral and expedited appeals); cost projections and how to anticipate inevitable change; and, the benefits of interstate collaboration.

Wisconsin’s 54 ALJs use high-volume docketing and administrative technology to effectively handle large numbers of cases statewide, including workers’ compensation cases.  Cases are heard in-person, by video and telephonically on behalf of 15 different state governmental agencies.

Common themes and issues

Administrative procedures discussed included those of:  North Carolina, Alaska, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and Washington State.   Common themes of the states’ presentations were:

  • The increasing volume, complexity, and types of cases being filed, including more parties and party-intervenors.
  • The need for “remote hearing technology” to handle the increasing volume of cases.
  • The need for better “cloud-based” technology to meet the demands of the increasing caseloads of the ALJs.
  • The need for a highly trained support staff to assist in efficiently handling the number of cases to a satisfactory and timely conclusion.
  • The need for continuing education and training for newly appointed ALJs.
  • The need for the “appearance of fairness” to be as important as “actual fairness”.
  • The need to address issues of “implicit bias”.
  • The professional judiciary is under close scrutiny regarding delays in promptly handling assigned cases.
  • The need to address “social media” issues.
  • Legislative budgeting concerns to handle the need for ALJs and other personnel to efficiently handle administrative appeals and hearings.
  • The increasing demands of effectively addressing and deciding Special Education cases.
  • The issue of increasing the “contempt power” of ALJs.
  • The need for increasing mediation and negotiations to reduce the number of hearings, especially in complex cases.
  • The continuing need to address the “future of administrative law” as hearings continue to increase in number and ALJs face more demands and complex cases in the future.

Conference speakers and panels

The conference included an illustrious line-up of speakers, including many chief state central panel ALJs.  ABA President Judy Perry Martinez gave a keynote address highlighting the ABA’s commitment to preserving and protecting judicial independence.

Hon. Benes Z. Aldana, President of The National Judicial College, gave remarks, and moderated a panel on “The Future of the Law” with panelists:  NC Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri L. Beasley, former Justice Robert Orr, and Buncombe County Chief District Court Judge Calvin Hill.  The panel described a judicial future that expands diversity and technology, among other initiatives.

Malcolm Rich, the Executive Director of the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, moderated a presentation on the “History of the Central Panels and the Central Panel Directors Conference”.  Rich was co-author of the first study of central panels and convened the first CPDC in 1981, when there were only seven such panels.  There are now approximately 30 central panel jurisdictions.  Rich co-authored a second study of central ALJ panel jurisdictions that was released in February 2019.

A session on “What the Feds Can Learn from the States About Central Panels” was moderated by the Hon. Richard Goodwin, Past Chair of the ABA’s Judicial Division.  The discussion dealt with the role that a central panel might play on the federal level, given the recent Lucia opinion of the United States Supreme Court. Lucia v. Sec. & Exch. Comm’n, 138 S. Ct. 2044, 2055 (2018), (“the Commission’s ALJs are “Officers of the United States,” subject to the Appointments Clause.”)

The conference included a tour of the Haywood County, North Carolina Justice Center in Waynesville, North Carolina, in connection with a discussion of “The Benefits of Having Resident ALJs with Remote ‘Stay Connected’ Courtroom Technology”.  The discussion covered the advantages and (some) disadvantages of establishing remote ALJ offices in county courthouses and the technologies required for these remote offices to maintain connection with the central office.