Judge or Bureaucrat? How Administrative Law Judges Exercise Discretion in Welfare Bureaucracies

Lens, Vicki A.

Administrative law judges are neglected but powerful actors in public welfare bureaucracies, presiding over quasi-judicial hearings triggered if participants challenge a bureaucratic decision on public welfare benefits. Drawing on ethnographic observations of fair hearings, as well as interviews with administrative law judges and appellants, this study seeks to understand the ways in which these judges exercise discretion and how it affects the adjudication of disputes. Findings suggest that disputes generated by poorly run bureaucracies provide judges with limited opportunity to use professional skills or discretion to scrutinize bureaucratic practices. When opportunities for such judgments do arise, judges take widely divergent paths. Some align themselves with the welfare agency, enforcing bureaucratic practices rather than scrutinizing them. Others emphasize their neutrality and judicial role, scrutinizing and aligning agency practices with the law’s underlying purposes.


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Social Service Review

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Social Work
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December 18, 2012