The Annual Report of the General Assembly’s Administrative Rules Oversight Committee (pdf) has an interesting discussion of replacing the Administrative Law Judge system for adjudicating matters overseen by the state’s administrative agencies with a centralized “office of appeal.” The committee ultimately recommended against such a proposal because the people who testified before the committee were supportive of the current system.
The idea is, however, that a centralized office of appeal would allow for judges who are more independent of the agencies whose decisions they are reviewing. It’s hard to escape the feeling that an agency’s Administrative Law Judge might be biased toward the agency. A judge coming out of a completely different administrative department who reviews decisions from a variety of agencies would presumably have an easier time being independent.
However, the various people providing testimony to the committee seemed well satisfied by the ALJ system, saying that it allowed for judges with expertise in the particular administrative areas and a consistency of decisions. The witnesses were a lawyer who practiced frequently before the Office of Environmental Adjudication; a deputy director of the Department of Natural Resources; and the Chief Environmental Law Judge for the Office of Environmental Adjudication.
For my part, on the hand full of occasions when I have practiced in front of an administrative law judge, I have had mostly negative experiences when compared to my experiences with a wide variety of trial court judges. Admittedly, this could be mostly a matter of my lack of familiarity with this particular legal subculture — the codes of procedure only tell half the story in any of these settings. There are generally any number of unwritten rules that frequent players just know. (For example, traveling west central Indiana doing collections, every court does things just a little bit differently, and you just have to get to know the system.) In any case, the ALJs I have run across seemed to be inconsistently focused on technical rules. By which I mean, they almost make a fetish of some of the rules while casually ignoring others. And the game is figuring out which is which.
But, like I said, my experience here is limited — maybe 6 to 8 matters across 3 administrative agencies. Probably not a big enough sample to draw a conclusion.