Administrative law judges (ALJ) (not administrative judges) are executive judges for official and unofficial hearings of administrative disputes in the Federal government. Because they only hear administrative law issues as designated in the Administrative Procedure Act of 1946 (APA), administrative law judges are considered part of the executive branch, not the judicial branch, and ALJs are appointed by the heads of the executive agencies. However, administrative law judges receive much of the same protections as those in the judicial branch in order to preserve their neutrality such as not being subject to bonuses or ranking systems of executive agencies. ALJs carry out determinations on both questions of fact and questions of law, like bench trials for judicial proceedings, and they have the authority to issue subpoenas, administer oaths, and issue rulings.
Given the broad scope of administrative law, ALJs participate in many different topics and for many different agencies such as the Social Security Administration (SSA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the U.S. Postal Service. The determinations of an ALJ may be appealed potentially even to a federal judicial court. However, essentially every agency has its own appellate processes of review that must be followed before someone can access the federal courts, and sometimes in large agencies, the agency’s internal review process can be quite extensive.
ALJs do not serve the same role as administrative judges. While similar in name to ALJs, administrative judges can only participate in unofficial disputes of executive agencies which constitute the majority of administrative disputes. Only ALJs can hear official disputes heard by the agencies. Further, administrative judges are directly hired by the agencies and are subject to their employment rules and benefits, unlike the independent ALJ judges.
Many states also have ALJs that serve similar roles as their Federal counterparts. The rules and nature of ALJs vary by state on levels of neutrality, procedure, and jurisdiction.
[Last updated in November of 2021 by the Wex Definitions Team]