Review of D.C. Office of Administrative Hearings Recommends Public Online Access to Dockets and Decisions

For 20,000 appeals filed each year from decisions in dozens of District agencies, from trash tickets to school suspensions, unemployment denials and Food Stamp or Medicaid errors, the only way to check on your case is by calling the clerk’s office at the central appeals office or visiting in person downtown at Judiciary Square—a special chore for the thirty percent of customers from Virginia and Maryland.

The central hearing panel of 33 administrative law judges was established in 2001, following a majority of states, to remove conflicts of interest where agencies review themselves and increase consistency and quality of decisions. The Office has been buffeted by internal problems and the removal of the last chief judge for ethics violations (her appeal is pending). 

A new report (issued September 7) prepared for the D.C. Auditor by the civic group, Council for Court Excellence (disclosure: this blogger is on the Council board and worked on the report), highlights how improved technology could help the Office of Administrative Hearings provide better service in many ways.

Specifically concerning improved access to information, the report recommends the Office set deadlines for electronic filing of case documents and public access to an online database of case dockets and decisions. 

Courts nationwide have been grappling for years with rising expectation of attorneys, press and the public for online access to court records in the 21st century. The federal courts led the way with online access since 2001 to full case files by the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system though it is criticized for outdated searching, mandatory registration and a credit card for charging the $0.10 page-viewing fee.

In the District, most kinds of Superior Court cases have been filed electronically for years but only case docketing information is available online (not motions, briefs or opinions). Candidates for chief judge at a forum earlier in the year responded to questions about when expanded access may be expected at the District's busy trial court.

Electronic filing is being rolled out this year at the D.C. Court of Appeals (now on a voluntary basis). Some opinions and the docket of all cases are available online but broader public access has not yet been addressed.

The report on the Office of Administrative Hearings does not include a response from the agency to the findings and recommendations.