President Donald Trump will probably appoint a Supreme Court Justice during his presidency. That appointment will tilt the current balance between liberal and conservative justices on that bench. His choice will be of great concern and keep journalists up to their elbows in ink for months. Unfortunately, that concern diverts us from another one of equal importance: the growing number of conservative appointments Trump has made to the federal bench. But wait. There’s more horror to come. The White House is seeking to gain control over administrative law judges (ALJ), a shift that should keep everyone awake at nights.
ALJs are judges who work within federal agencies, advising them on federal law compliance. They are treated as government employees . About 1900 of them exist in the system. The jobs are governed by civil service regulations, but the White House wants to change their designation. The plan is to declare ALJs are not employees but “officers,” a reclassification that removes them from the civil service umbrella and makes them political appointees, subject to hiring and firing by department heads.
ALJs handles approximately 1.5 million cases a year. They make rulings on disparate issues — anything from black lung cases to decisions made by the Security and Exchange Commission. (SEC) (“Trump’s War on DeepState Judges,” by Margaret Newkirk and Greg Stohr, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, April 23, 2018, pg. 43) If ALJs becomes subject to the approval of the White House, our three branches of government essentially becomes two: the legislative and the executive branch. The bifurcation of our government is a serious matter and one the media, with its focus on Trump’s tweets, seems to have missed.
The U. S. Supreme Court will soon decide the fate of ALJ justices. Ray Luca, a radio talk show host, is appealing an unfavorable Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) ruling which affects one of his businesses. He argues the ALJ who ruled against him is an employee of the agency and, as such, has no jurisdiction to make that judgement. The White House tacitly agrees, and it has barred the SEC from defending itself. The high court has had to appoint an attorney to represent them.
Some may insist Donald Trump has accomplished little during his tenure has president. Yet, almost single handily, he may be altering the course of our justice system for decades to come.