CAN AGGRESSIVE management do anything about judges who either won't carry their share of the work or seem to decide cases far too often on a particular side? A pending lawsuit raises this question with respect to the largest adjudicatory system in the Western World--administrative law judges in the Social Security Administration.
Administrative law judges are civil servants who conduct trial-type proceedings over benefits, licenses, rates and fees, labor-management disputes and so forth. They provide an inexpensive alternative to courts. Although not full-fledged judges in the familiar sense, by statute they are given a lot of independence as guards against bias in favor of their agency. About two-thirds of them are in the Social Security Administration conducting hearings and deciding appeals by people whose benefits have been denied or reduced. In fiscal year 1982, 800 of these judges disposed of nearly 300,000 cases, almost all of which involved the emotionally and factually difficult issue of disability.
The statutory test of disability is so tough that people with very severe hardships can still be ineligible for benefits. And after a denial, many request a hearing. Here the administrative law judge is in a bind. There is the danger of pressure from the management to decide cases too quickly and in accord with the agency's fiscal interests rather than the merits. The Association of Administrative Law Judges says that this danger in fact is real: the pressure exists.
Social Security officials have been trying for years to improve the productivity of these judges, some of whom handle almost twice the monthly average of 34 cases, while others handle below 20. (Their legal and clerical staffs average around five people.) And there has been concern that while the "average" administrative law judge decides over half of the cases in favor of the claimant, several judges average over 70 percent in their favor.
These disparities suggest flawed performances by more than a few of these officials. But doing something about it without compromising the rights of the claimants is hard. The pending lawsuit will test whether the measures being pursued by Social Security strike the right balance. At a minimum, however, close scrutiny of the administrative law judges' decisions and reasoning seems a good idea, and some minimum standards of productivity are essential. And when objective evidence--perhaps assessed by other of these judges?--shows a clear problem, management should be free to act through the normal civil service procedures.
Superintending the legality and fairness of the distribution of $170 billion requires attention to productivity and consistency--not just for pocketbook reasons, but also because the less arbitrariness there is, the better.