The position of the administrative law judge (ALJ) was established within the federal government by the Administrative Procedures Act of 1946. As described by the Office of Personnel Management the ALJ's key responsibilities are to serve as an impartial trier of fact in formal proceedings that require an on-the-record decision after an opportunity for a hearing. Their central goal is to resolve the disputes between an agency and those individuals affected by its decisions.
There currently are at least 34 federal agencies — including the Federal Communications Commission, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Labor — who employ one or more ALJs. But the Social Security Administration (SSA) — currently with 1,396 fulltime ALJs — is the home base for the largest number of these officials.
The ALJ is a unique federal official who is employed by agencies of the executive branch but at the same time guaranteed independent decision powers. While federal agencies differ in the label they apply to the body on which these administrative law judges serve — some use the term court while others, like the SSA, use the label hearing offices — in many respects they function very much like court institutions, but without the same level of independence as regular federal courts which are in the judicial branch.
The ALJ administers oaths, takes testimony, rules on questions of evidence and makes factual and legal determinations that in most agencies can be appealed to special bodies created for that purpose within the agencies. Typically, as is the case for the Social Security Administration disability courts (in this report we use the term "courts" interchangeably with "hearing offices"), cases can then be appealed to the federal courts.
In SSA disability courts, the administrative law judges have several roles. In addition to the impartial trier of the facts, the judge is also responsible for developing a full and fair record. While the claimant often appears with legal representation, there is no government attorney at the hearing to ask probing questions of the witnesses or present counter evidence. That role also falls to the administrative judge.
Over the years, the hybrid nature of this position along with the relative independence of the ALJs has led to numerous debates in Congress and elsewhere over the authority of the agencies to hold the ALJs accountable for their work. On the other hand, to be an impartial trier of the facts exercising court-like powers others argue requires a great deal of independence from agency managers to properly exercise this function.
To become an ALJ an applicant must have seven full years of experience as a licensed attorney and pass an examination that is administered by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). An ALJ can be discharged only for good cause on the basis of a complaint filed by the agency with the Merit Systems Protection Board.