Monday the Senate approved a bill sponsored by Sen. Mike Padden aimed at increasing the independence of the state’s administrative-law judges by limiting the ability of state-agency heads to add undue pressure or retribution during administrative hearings.
“I was a district court judge for 12 years,” said Padden, who chairs the Senate Law and Justice Committee. “Regardless of the level of the judiciary, it’s really important for the public to have confidence – whether you win or lose in a judicial battle – that the process is fair and the judge or jury is independent and not under undue influence.”
The Office of Administrative Hearings is an independent state agency made up of 74 administrative law judges who conduct impartial administrative hearings for Washington's citizens and governmental agencies.
“There are more than 69,000 of these administrative hearings every year, so we have an obligation to citizens to make sure that the review process is impartial, unbiased and transparent,” said Padden. “It must not only be fair in fact, but for the sake of public confidence, it must have the complete appearance of fairness as well.
“This bill is a positive step toward achieving that goal.”
Padden, R-Spokane Valley, introduced Senate Bill 6019 to address the adjudicative proceedings by state agencies in the wake of a scandal involving allegations of undue influence and retribution by the Office of the Insurance Commissioner in a case involving Seattle Children’s Hospital.
The allegations came in 2014 from Administrative Law Judge Patricia Petersen, who claimed that Chief Deputy Insurance Commissioner James Odiorne pressured her to rule in favor of the agency and then retaliated against her when she became a whistleblower. The dispute was settled out of court, with the agency paying Petersen $450,000.
Padden’s bill would do two things to avoid a similar situation in the future:
1. It would require an Administrative Law Judge in an internal agency or employed by the Office of Administrative Hearings to issue final orders, not proposed orders; and
2. It would clarify that improper “ex-parte communication” includes communications with an agency employee that requires a presiding officer decides cases according to the agency head's unwritten policies.
“SB 6019 would establish administrative-law judges as the individuals responsible for issuing final orders in these cases, which, in turn, would be appealable to the superior court,” Padden said.
SB 6019 was approved by a vote of 47-0, and now heads to the House of Representatives for its consideration.