The Office of Administrative Hearings has launched a searchable portal of select decisions dating back to last September to assist attorneys and members of the public with researching administrative law cases.
“The management here feels strongly that this is really useful to the public to be able to see decisions in cases, particularly individuals who are unrepresented or attorneys who haven’t practiced in a particular area before,” said Claire Pierson, a staff attorney with OAH overseeing the effort. “It’s not always easy to research this type of decision.”
Pierson said making the decisions accessible “levels the playing field” because agencies have easy access to past cases but litigants previously did not.
“We’re the government,” she said. “We’re open and that’s a really important thing. Letting the public see what we’re doing is important.”
The database was launched in April and contains decisions for agencies such as the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation; Department of Public Safety & Correctional Services; and Maryland Insurance Administration.
The database can be searched by agency, date and keyword.
As of Monday, more than 1,300 decisions have been scanned for potential uploading, Pierson said. The ones not uploaded yet are being read and having confidential information redacted. Pierson said she speaks with agency heads and does research on privacy requirements as more agencies’ decisions are added.
“We’re really trying to strike a balance between respecting people’s privacy and having enough information for it to be substantively useful,” she said.
The state’s administrative law judges issue more than 40,000 per year.
Certain cases are not being considered for upload, including certain types of Motor Vehicle Administration decisions and personnel and retirement matters. Some will not be posted if there is a significant amount of redaction required and the final product would not be helpful, Pierson said.
“If something has to be redacted to the point of not being useful, for now, it’s not being published,” she said.
Once the process is more streamlined, Pierson said decisions should become available approximately two months after they are issued.
“It’s definitely not an automated process,” she said. “It’s definitely a human-driven process.”
Chief Administrative Law Judge Thomas Dewberry said publishing decisions has been a goal of his for more than five years, since he learned from his counterparts across the country that most other states made their decisions available online.
“I’m very pleased that we are moving forward, we’re up and running and I think it’s going to be a good thing for stakeholders,” he said.
Part of the delay for Maryland was determining whether to use an outside vendor for the technology; making sure any eventual database complied with privacy rules; and contacting agencies to see if they had any concerns about publishing decisions.
“Thankfully, it’s finally coming to fruition,” Dewberry said.
Though the database now only has decisions dating back to Sept. 1, Dewberry said he hopes to expand the date range back further if possible but noted administrative law changes frequently and cases older than five years are unlikely to have much value.
The decisions are not precedent but can be cited persuasively, he added. If an administrative law judge is not familiar with a certain area of the law or there is a decision involving similar facts, it can be useful to bring it to the judge’s attention.
“They can be used and the administrative law judge that hears a case can give it whatever weight he or she wants to give it and it can perhaps be very persuasive,” he said.
Decisions can be accessed at decisions-oah.maryland.gov.