Administrative Independence and Decisional Autonomy: Some Thoughts from the Seventh Circuit

At issue in Association of Administrative Law Judges v. Colvin, was a directive issued by the chief administrative law judge of the Social Security Administration, setting out the following “goal” for administrative law judges: each one was to “manage their docket in such a way that they will be able to issue 500–700 legally sufficient decisions each year.” According to the judges, this quota is enforced by formal and informal methods.

For the majority, Judge Posner accepted that the changes might affect administrative law judges’ decision-making. But he refused to accept that their independence was compromised:

Beyond some point, increasing a worker’s quota is going to induce him to spend less time on each task. If he is a worker on a poultry processing assembly line and the conveyor belt that carries the chickens to his work station for deboning is speeded up, he will spend less time deboning each chicken than he might think desirable to make sure no bits of bone are left in the chicken when it leaves his work station on the conveyor belt. In other words, the quality of his output would decline. Yet he would not be heard to claim that his decisional independence was being compromised. His situation would parallel that of the administrative law judges. The time pressure on him would result in a reduction in the quality of his work (slip opinion at p. 5, my emphasis).

But (as always) it is slightly more complicated than that. Judge Posner himself allowed that some administrative interferences would be impermissible.

Suppose that solely for the sake of administrative efficiency the Social Security Administration ordered that disability hearings were to last no more than 15 minutes. The quality of justice meted out by the administrative law judges would be dangerously diminished. But all that matters for the decision of the present case is that the administrative law judges’ remedy under the Administrative Procedure Act for interference with their decisional independence does not ex-tend to the incidental consequences of a bona fide production quota (at p. 7).

And Judge Ripple noted in his concurring opinion that constitutional issues could arise in other circumstances:

Serious impairment of a governmental function can occur at the hands of officials with the most worthy of motives. The integrity of the judicial function, at any level of adjudication, can be undermined seriously by even the most benignly motivated administrative or executive action that alters the essential function of adjudication. Officials charged with the responsibility “to get the job done” must devise methods and measures for achieving that goal. Devising such tools always requires, however, balancing considerations of efficiency with respect for the core functions of the governmental unit involved—here the adjudication of cases (at p. 15).

It seems to me that the danger is actually two-fold. The Seventh Circuit’s approach focuses on one aspect, that working conditions could be so drastically altered as to seriously impair the decision-making process. More subtly, however, a supervisor who demands more at Time A can similarly demand more at Time B. And her decision at Time B might well be influenced by her perception of the decision-maker’s work in the interim. In other words, if the supervisor has the power to unilaterally demand more, decision-makers are more likely in the interim to please the supervisor rather than deciding cases on their individual merits. I wonder if it would have been realistic to take this into account.


This content has been updated on March 4, 2015 at 15:58.