Do's and Don'ts
5 Do’s and 5 Don’ts for Administrative Law Judges

By four longtime NJC administrative law faculty Hon. Toni Boone (Ret.), Hon. Jennifer Gee (Ret.), Hon. Thomas Cheffins, and Hon. W. Michael Gillette (Ret.). Interviewed by Jenna Delacruz

  1. Manage your cases systematically 
    Devise a system that works for you and your organizational style. This can be in the form of an Excel or Word doc or any organizational tool. Have a template for each type of decision you write, including pre-written paragraphs you can plug into the templates. Make sure the language used is consistent with the gender of the parties involved and whether the terms should be singular or plural. Make sure any citations you use are current. Automating commonalities, such as case or statute citations or statutes you cite often, will enable you to be more efficient with case-flow management.
  2. Review the case for timeliness and jurisdictional defects
    The case file was likely prepared by someone who was not acquainted with the logistics of jurisdictional defects or did not check the timeliness of the filing: Ask yourself:
    – Does the person who requested the hearing have standing?
    – Was the appeal timely filed?
    – Did the agency act within the time prescribed to take action against the individual?

    Reviewing a case for jurisdictional defects may even enable you to remove the case from your docket, reducing your workload.
  3. Declare your independence
    The public may suspect that you are predisposed to rule in favor of the agency you work for,  so take time to explain to the parties that although the agency pays you, they pay you to be impartial. One way to get across your status as an impartial representative of the justice system is to display the American or state flag.
  4. Make a final check for any hint of bias or stereotyping
    Judges who believe they have no biases are dangerous. Everyone who has ever lived has developed biases as a result of their lived experiences. Try listening to a recording of your hearings with an ear toward detecting bias. Better yet, have a colleague do the review. Sit on your evidence before making a decision because it’s easy to be swayed by the first and last evidence you hear. Reflect on each piece of information you heard in the hearing and how it relates to the decision. 
  5. Be a career-long learner 
    It’s wrong to assume that law school and your experience practicing law adequately prepared you to be an administrative law judge, or any other kind of judge, on Day 1, let alone for the rest of your career on the bench. Change is constant in law, technology and society’s issues. An exemplary judge understands the need for continual learning.
  1. Don’t assume agency notices are up-to-date or understandable
    Typically, neither is the case. Some notices to litigants may cite a statute without explanation of what it is. Take the time to simplify the legal language and explain the law. Bullet-point relevant issues, such as the basis for a sanction and what the government wants to sanction them about. Include a legal hotline number they can call for advice. Especially with self-represented litigants, this may mean the difference between the litigant coming into a case blind or understanding what’s happening. This is also in your best interest as far as docket management. If a litigant is confused, you may have to postpone the case to allow time for them to figure out what they’re being accused of, the ramifications, and what evidence may be relevant.
  2. Don’t wait to record key points
    Most judges cannot get to a decision for some time. Memory is fallible, so make notes from hearings in real time. Among the most important details to record: discrepancies in testimony or evidence; any concept from the hearing you need to research further or which requires clarification; anything from the case that particularly stood out to you in the moment.
  3. Don’t keep a scorecard on yourself
    Don’t think about how often you’re ruling for your employer as opposed to the litigant. You’re paid to examine each case independent of all others and base decisions on the facts and the law, nothing else. You should never be thinking, “Oh, today I ruled four times for the agency.”
  4. Don’t let self-represented litigants throw in the kitchen sink
    There’s temptation, especially among new judges, to admit all evidence so the self-represented litigant doesn’t get upset with you. Don’t do that. Just as you would dismiss inadmissible evidence such as hearsay from a lawyer, don’t be afraid to veto irrelevant submissions by self-represented litigants. Your job is not to appease the parties standing before you. Your job is to protect individuals from the arbitrary exercise of authority by the agency. Letting in irrelevant evidence may result in a longer hearing or more cluttered record as the other party submits evidence to respond to the irrelevant evidence.
  5. Don’t be a Judge Judy
    The famously scolding TV arbiter may make for entertaining viewing, but you need to show respect for all parties if you want them to respect you back. No matter how strongly you may feel about a party, don’t let it show. Also, don’t forget the humanity of the individuals who come before you. ALJs hold many more hearings involving real, live folks than does all the rest of the judicial system. Remember that for every party who appears before you, their case may be the most important issue in their lives at that moment.

To learn more and to register for administrative law courses, explore the course catalog. Scholarships may be available, apply during registration.

Upcoming 2024 administrative law courses:

NJC News