OIC Allegations Ignite Judicial Independence Work Session

In response to the allegations of OIC ex parte communication with the agency’s chief administrative law judge, state legislators will hear three different draft bills with varying approaches to support judicial independence. The Senate Law and Justice Committee has added this topic to its agenda for the work session scheduled on June 16th. Patricia Peterson, the whistleblower judge at the center of the OIC investigation, will testify at the committee work session.

Although the investigations are still ongoing at the OIC, an interim work session on the independence of administrative hearing officers signals that Sen. Mike Padden and Sen. Steve O’Ban, the chair and vice chair of the Law & Justice Committee respectively, are taking the public’s concerns quite seriously. Oftentimes, the judges that adjudicate cases between the public and a state agency are employed by the agency itself. The proposed bills are not final drafts nor do they have sponsors in the legislature. However, each seeks to address the inherent conflict in the current system:

  • The first proposal would give administrative law judges authority to render a final decision without going back to the OIC. Currently, cases decided by the agency’s judge must send their decisions to the insurance commissioner who can reject it and enter a final and binding order.
  • The second bill would require all OIC administrative hearings to go before the Office of Administrative Hearings. The goal would be to ensure judges who decide agency cases aren’t employed by that same agency.
  • The third proposal would amend current law on ex parte communication as it pertains to administrative law. It would make it a gross misdemeanor for state agency employees to intentionally try to influence an administrative law judge’s decision. It would also make each written or verbal communication a separate offense and protect judges from having their performance evaluated based on whether they rule in favor of the agency. It would further provide that any employee under investigation related to ex parte contact must be placed on leave while the accusations are investigated.

As lawmakers consider and amend each approach, we anticipate that legislation regarding independence of hearings officers at state agencies will be introduced in Olympia during the 2015 session.