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GAO: Coast Guard Judges Fair to Mariners

Exval The U.S. General Accounting Office this week released the findings of its review of the U.S. Coast Guard's administrative law judge program. The GAO concludes that the ALJs are able to decide cases independently and free of undue influence from Coast Guard officials. It further finds that the ALJ program contains adequate protections to ensure the fairness of the process for mariners, such as the right to a hearing and to be represented.

The Coast Guard's ALJ program came under attack in 2007, when news reports and hearings before a U.S. House subcommittee raised concerns about whether the ALJs were able to decide cases independently. In response to those concerns, Congress asked the GAO to review the program. Two of the key issues Congress asked the GAO to look into were whether the ALJs have "decisional independence" and to what extent the ALJ program provides protections for mariners.

The mariners involved in these cases are merchant mariners working on commercial vessels at sea. To be employed as a merchant mariner, Coast Guard-issued credentials are required. If the Coast Guard believes that a mariner has failed to adhere to requirements for safety and security at sea, it initiates proceedings to suspect the mariner's credential. (Need an example? Think Exxon Valdez, the largest oil spill in U.S. history, where the skipper was found to have consumed alcohol and left the bridge.) If the mariner denies the charges, the matter goes to a hearing before an ALJ, where the Coast Guard has the burden of proving the charge.

The GAO found that the system "contains elements designed to foster the decisional independence of its judges." In particular, the GAO noted that all personnel actions involving ALJs must be conducted in accordance with independent Office of Personnel Management regulations and that personnel actions against an ALJ may be taken only through an independent agency, the Merit Systems Protection Board.

The GAO also concluded that the system contains adequate protections for mariners. In addition to providing mariners the right to a hearing and to be represented, the GAO found, the Coast Guard follows procedures designed to give mariners fair notice of the charges against them and the ALJs were following procedures regarding the elements to be addressed in their decisions.

Not surprisingly, few of these cases ever make it to a hearing before an ALJ. Of the 1,675 cases the GAO studied, only 3 percent resulted in an ALJ's issuance of a decision and order. The bulk of the cases, 62 percent, were resolved with settlement agreements.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on June 19, 2009 at 03:07 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)


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