Gotham Gazette

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Ethics Code for Administrative Judges Vote Yes

This November New Yorkers have a chance to vote on a measure that, simply put, promotes justice. With Ballot Proposal Three, the charter revision commission has placed on the November ballot the recommendation that the city charter require that the mayor, acting jointly with the city's office of administrative trials and hearings ("OATH"), establish a uniform code of conduct and ethics for administrative law judges and hearing officers. The New York City Bar Association supports this recommendation and advocates its passage.

Quasi-judicial, administrative tribunals focus on matters of city law and regulation enforcement, in order to relieve congestion in the courts. The network includes tribunals like the Environmental Control Board, which assesses fines to those charged with violating city environmental laws such as putting household garbage in street-corner trash cans. The Departments of Consumer Affairs and Health & Mental Hygiene, the Loft Board and Parking Violations Bureau are among other agencies that conduct administrative hearings. Those charged with violations have the right to a hearing headed by officers appointed by the agency whose regulations are being enforced. Their daily volume is enormous.

For most New Yorkers, the city's administrative tribunals are the only place in which they interact with the city's law enforcement mechanisms. Citizens are rarely represented by counsel, language issues often present challenges. The resulting impression can be intimidation, confusion and the absence of due process. Justice requires fairness, efficiency, consistency and independence. These objectives would be served by uniform standards.

Unlike judges, however, administrative hearing officers are not bound by a uniform requirement of standards, ethics, procedures, conduct or even qualifications. There is no practical or compelling reason for this. Standards and minimum requirements of justice do not vary by the amounts in controversy or the laws being enforced. Neither do the standards and minimum requirements of ethical conduct.

There was a charter revision commission in 2003 proposing a similar measure to this year's, which also required the mayor to appoint an administrative justice coordinator to promote a uniform training program and professional standards for administrative hearing officers. The voters rejected it. The Bar Association applauded that effort but argued such an appointment did not require a charter amendment; it only required an executive order. This year, the Charter Commission accepted the recommendation and urged the mayor to appoint the coordinator under his own authority. The coordinator would have a major role in establishing a standard code of conduct.

Most city agencies continue to be the fact finder, prosecutor, and judge in their administrative enforcement proceedings. The establishment of uniform standards would bring a greater measure of independence to those agencies’ proceedings. As with the office of administrative justice coordinator, it is not clear that a charter amendment is required to establish these standards. However, such standards are sorely needed, and by approving Ballot Proposal 3 the voters can firmly establish them in law.

Peter J. Kiernan is the chair of the New York City Bar Committee on New York City Affairs  

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