House Panel Advances Bill to Undo Trump Order on Administrative Law Judges
A bill working its way through Congress would restore the judges to the competitive civil service three years after the Trump administration gave agencies greater leeway in hiring decisions.
The House Oversight and Reform Committee this week voted along party lines to advance legislation that would undo a 2018 Trump administration executive order removing administrative law judges from the competitive civil service and restore the Office of Personnel Management’s traditional role in vetting judge candidates.
In 2018, President Trump signed the executive order, which officials at the time said was to conform with the Lucia v. Securities and Exchange Commission Supreme Court decision, which found that SEC administrative law judges are considered “inferior officers” under the Constitution and, as such, are subject to the Appointments Clause. The order did away with the traditional process by which OPM would vet ALJ candidates, and then provide agencies with a list of qualified candidates to choose from and made it more akin to a traditional political appointment process.
But Democrats and employee groups have argued the order relies on a misunderstanding of Lucia v. SEC and that the edict could lead to the politicization of a judges’ corps that long has been relied on for its judicial independence.
The Administrative Law Judges Competitive Service Restoration Act (H.R. 4448), introduced by Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., would restore administrative law judges to the competitive civil service and codify OPM’s vetting process for these hires in statute. The bill would also restore the requirement that administrative law judge candidates be licensed to practice law in the United States and have seven years of experience adjudicating administrative law.
Connolly said the executive order threatened administrative law judges’ ability to perform their jobs impartially.
“This exposed impartial judges, who determined the outcome of disputes over labor-management relations, claims for Social Security and public health benefits, to political influence and degraded the quality of work that ALJs do and undermined faith in vital government programs,” Connolly said. “A president could now install likeminded ALJs that endorsed the administrative decisions of the Social Security Administration denying disability benefits and thwarting appeals from older Americans who rely on Social Security for their livelihoods.”
But Republicans objected to the bill, arguing instead that the Trump-era initiative was a needed reform to the hiring process.
“[The executive order] was a sound policy decision,” said Rep. James Comer, R-Ky. “By placing ALJs in the excepted service, it gave federal departments and agencies greater flexibility to assess prospective ALJ candidates. This was a smart government reform. Agencies should be allowed to consider candidates in a timely manner, free from the complexities and delays of the competitive service process.”
The committee voted 24-16 to advance the bill, which now heads to the House floor for consideration.