It is probably not too much of an exaggeration to say that the American legal system is based upon judges being fair, and honest, and above-all independent. Judges wear black robes as a symbol of their independence; by wearing a robe they signal their essential separation from everyone else in the legal system. If we cannot count on our judges to be independent we will soon lose our faith that the process is fair. A couple of recent hearings before Social Security judges has me wondering if SSA prizes judicial independence.
I had two judges tell me within the past week that SSA is instructing them to be more strict in their rulings. The penalty for not doing so is having decisions sent
back to these judges to be heard again. One of the two judges did not seem terribly bothered by this . The other, though, was rattled. He seemed to have lost his confidence in his ability to decide the case before him. He was openly worried that if he did something wrong, he would have the case reviewed and sent back to him. Having seen this twice in a week, I have to wonder if this sort of influence is appropriate. Should SSA be telling judges how to decide cases? Admittedly, the judges do have to apply the Social Security rules and regulations. If you asked SSA, I'm sure they would say that their instructions to the judges are designed simply to ensure better and more accurate decisions. SSA would assuredly deny that they are trying to influence the outcome of any given case. But, is that position legitimate? Or is SSA pressuring judges by constantly looking over their shoulders, watching for any deviation from what SSA considers correct?
I certainly have not heard of SSA pressuring judges to approve more claims. All of the influence that SSA exerts seems to be designed to produce fewer decisions overall and even fewer favorable decisions. If SSA thinks that their judges are approving too many claims, they have remedies. They can changes the regulations, for example, to make approvals harder to get. That is their right. What SSA cannot do, however, is pressure judges to approve fewer claims. If the system is to work, judges have to be independent. Right now, there are too many troubling signs that this is not the case.