We administrative law judges often feel, at best, misunderstood by our trial-judge brethren and, at worst, looked down upon.
That’s unfortunate because our day-to-day professional lives are more alike than different. We both manage a docket. We both face difficult decisions on a regular basis. We both deal with attorneys who range from inspiring to infuriating.
I have been a workers compensation judge for more than 21 years. In the interest of empathy, allow me to describe a typical day in my courtroom. I’ll start roughly in the middle.
At 11:45 a.m. I am presiding over my third hearing of the morning. Each of the previous two have taken an hour. I typically have as many as five hearings on my morning docket and an equal number in the afternoon. Some are preliminary hearings or motion hearings. These may take 30 to 60 minutes each. Some are “regular” or final hearings to determine the amount of compensation. Those may take an hour or two.
In the matter at hand, I have to decide whether the claimant is an employee or independent contractor. Counsel is droning on about his client’s family history, military record and educational background. This posturing, of course, has nothing to do with the issue at hand. And I think to myself, if counsel would stick to the real issues, this hearing could have been over already. Does this sound familiar, trial judges?
I look ahead to the afternoon schedule and see I have a conference call set for 1:15 and a full docket starting again at 1:30. I sigh. This could be a long day.
I also still have an Award (a memorandum decision determining permanent benefits) to write in a bitterly contested case. The issues include whether the injury occurred in the course of employment, whether alcohol or drugs were involved, whether chemical test results are admissible, and the nature and extent of the resulting impairment or disability. I wonder where I will find the time to finish reading the voluminous record of this case and then compose an Award. The decision is due out this week, and it’s already Wednesday.
But back to the matter at hand.
The posturing counsel are finally wrapping up. With the record they’ve compiled, I won’t be able to announce a decision from the bench. I’ll have to take the file back to chambers, finish reviewing the record as time permits, and get my decision out first thing tomorrow morning. The preliminary hearing decisions from this morning take priority. The final Award in the other case will have to wait.
Yes, I do take an hour for lunch, and you probably won’t believe how I spend it. In addition to grabbing a bite to eat, I drive to the local animal shelter, where I pet and socialize with the stray cats and kittens. It helps me de-stress. I highly recommend it.
And now, back to chambers.
By 1:30, I’m just getting off of the conference call. Counsel have been cordial and cooperative. The claimant in the case was released by the authorized treating physician, but her personal physician is recommending additional treatment. With a little discussion, we resolve this issue to everyone’s satisfaction. A court-ordered physician will conduct an independent examination. The conference call even ends with a little levity. With a little goading from me, counsel admit that by avoiding another hearing on Friday afternoon they will able to make their tee times.
On to the afternoon docket.
I see familiar attorneys’ names—what a great lineup! Without exception, these attorneys are professional in their preparation, their presentations, and in their dealings with opposing counsel. They make judging a positive experience. I look forward to an afternoon of hearings that will be focused, concise, expertly advocated and respectful of both the process and the court. This is why I continue to love my job.
The docket awaits; I better get after it. If things go well, I may yet find time to finish the morning’s decisions and get cracking on that Award memorandum.
It’s a good day to be a judge! No matter what kind.