Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Many N.J. Workers’ Comp Judges Owe Their Jobs To Political Favors

In its excellent series on the problem-ridden workers’ compensation system in New Jersey, the Star-Ledger examines how the process of politically appointing workers’ comp judges creates conflicts of interest and puts unqualified people in these important jobs.

The system is populated by jurists whose résumés often include past political appointments or elected office but thin trial experience. It also includes attorneys and insurance consultants who rank among the state's prolific campaign donors.

That political mix also casts a shadow in the Statehouse, where lawmakers routinely consider measures that would either boost workers' benefits or limit expenses for compensation carriers. Some of those same lawmakers run private law firms that earn tens of thousands of dollars representing insurers in comp court.

A Star-Ledger analysis of more than 117,000 workers' comp cases pending in 2007 found 469 cases in which insurance companies were represented by law firms whose principals were related to sitting compensation judges. And 606 more cases involved firms owned by county political chairs.

The article points out how much power workers’ compensation judges hold with relatively little oversight. Arguably, the rulings that they make are as important as those that any judge in any courtroom in the state makes, but much of what workers’ comp judges do occurs in closed-door mediations. What’s more, there are no juries in workers’ comp cases, though decisions, if appealed can be reviewed by a higher court.

They are asked to decide the truth, recommend a settlement or set a fair price for a severed limb or damaged spine.

The fact that workers’ comp judges in New Jersey are politically appointed isn’t in itself a cause for concerns. Many other judges in the state are appointed, but in every case, those candidates are vetted by the state bar to ensure that they are qualified. There’s no similar vetting process for workers’ comp judges.

This lack of screening was a concern as far back as 1974 when the State Commission of Investigation found that the selection process resulted too often in workers' comp judges who were "unoutstanding," appointed largely because of political pedigrees.

In a 300-page report, the SCI recommended the bar association review nominees and that its recommendations "be heavily considered in the interest of obtaining high quality and competence in the workers compensation judicuiary."
And while other states have checks and balances to ensure that workers’ compensation judges are qualified, competent and performing their jobs correctly, New Jersey has none.

As the Star-Ledger reporters revealed, New Jersey workers’ compensation judges often rule in cases where there’s a clear conflict of interest. The newspaper found hundreds of instances where judges heard cases in which their former law partners were representing the employer or insurance company. That seems a clear conflict of interest that would require the judge to recuse himself or herself, but that rarely, if ever, happens in New Jersey.

Florida law requires its comp court judges to have experience practicing workers' compensation law and to win approval from a statewide nominating commission. Then they face re-evaluation by the commission every four years. In Massachusetts, two advisory councils review and rate candidates for the workers' comp bench.

Nebraska residents vote to keep or remove their comp judges every six years. In Minnesota, a special commission compiles evaluations of judges on topics ranging from fairness to knowledge of the law, then publishes its results.

In Michigan, a Qualifications Advisory Committee comprised of workers and employers reviews comp judges every four years. Some fail to win reappointment. All are limited to no more than 12 years on the bench.

New Jersey's process is less complicated -- and less transparent.

Workers' comp judges in the Garden State get lifetime postings that now pay $140,000 a year. The appointees rarely are scrutinized, instead they typically end up as a line item awaiting approval by the Senate, one of many nominations the governor's office sends in batches.

As the Star-Ledger reporters revealed, New Jersey workers’ compensation judges often rule in cases where there’s a clear conflict of interest. The newspaper found hundreds of instances where judges heard cases in which their former law partners were representing the employer or insurance company. That seems a clear conflict of interest that would require the judge to recuse himself or herself, but that rarely, if ever, happens in New Jersey.

1 comment:

Aaron Carter said...

It just makes me sick reading about these things sometimes. I think that we live in a corrupt system. I have often thought about the hard working people that have to grind everyday to maintain their job and then there are some people who have it given to them. It's not really fair.

Aaron Carter | http://www.malatch.com/