The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit heard arguments this morning on whether an administrative law judge for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Affairs can sue the agency for what he believed were violations of his judicial independence.
J. Jeremiah Mahoney, acting chief administrative law judge for the department, accused agency officials of interfering with his independence by selectively assigning cases and communicating with litigants. U.S. District Judge James Boasberg dismissed the case in November 2011, finding Mahoney lacked standing to sue.
Today, Mahoney's lawyer, Kirkland & Ellis litigation partner Michael Williams, argued Mahoney did fall within the "zone of interest" to have standing to challenge the agency's actions. Williams said Mahoney didn't have to be a beneficiary in the same vein as a litigant to have an interest in fair proceedings.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Addy Schmitt countered there was no individual right of judicial independence under the federal Administrative Procedure Act – the law Mahoney sued under – and Mahoney failed to allege any facts that agency officials interfered with his decisions; claims related to the assignment of cases wouldn't apply, she said.
Mahoney, according to pleadings, accused a non-judicial supervisor of assigning cases based on political considerations, as opposed to rotating among the judges, and communicating with litigants who had cases before Mahoney. In one instance, Mahoney said the supervisor told a litigant Mahoney lacked jurisdiction over the case.
Judge Brett Kavanaugh said he couldn't see how the supervisor's actions affected Mahoney's decisions, saying it wasn't the same as a hypothetical situation in which Mahoney was told to rule a certain way. Williams said the non-random assignments meant Mahoney couldn't decide certain types of cases, and the supervisor's communication with litigants was another form of interference. Williams noted Boasberg found Mahoney pleaded facts that his independence was affected, but dismissed the case for lack of standing.
Senior Judge A. Raymond Randolph asked how the supervisor could interfere with Mahoney's decision making if the supervisor wasn't a judge. Kavanaugh noted if an official with the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts told a litigant a federal judge didn't have jurisdiction, that wouldn't affect how the judge ruled. Williams said the supervisor was a senior official and interfered with Mahoney's ability to adjudicate a case before him by communicating with the litigant.
The panel pressed Williams to explain why Mahoney's claims weren't complaints about his "working conditions," requiring him to pursue claims under the Civil Service Reform Act, as opposed to the Administrative Procedure Act. Williams said Mahoney's complaint wasn't about a significant change in his workload, but about his judicial independence, which was protected under the Administrative Procedure Act. He noted another case in which allegations of illegal wiretapping against an employer were considered separate from a "working conditions" claim.
Schmitt argued the difference between Mahoney's case and the wiretapping case was the employee had a constitutional right against illegal wiretapping, while Mahoney didn't have a statutory right to judicial independence. What mattered was where the protection stemmed from, she said, as opposed to the severity of the alleged effect on an employee's ability to do his job.
Kavanaugh asked if Mahoney's claims would be actionable under the Civil Service Reform Act. Schmitt said they might fall under a "catch-all" provision dealing with significant effects on working conditions, but the government would likely dispute the alleged actions were "significant."
If Mahoney couldn't sue under the Administrative Procedure Act or the Civil Service Reform Act, Judge Judith Rogers asked if that meant Mahoney – or any administrative law judge – had no options to challenge politically-motivated assignment of cases. Rogers said she thought the government would be concerned about such a situation. Claims would have to relate to decisions, Schmitt said, rather than the assignment of cases.