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State legislators and a union representing administrative law judges are crying foul over a plan to gut the legal staff at California’s Fair Employment and Housing Commission and contract out all future cases to another state agency. “We think such a decision would be a significant setback for civil rights enforcement in the state of California and contrary to the express intent of the Legislature,” state Sen. Don Perata, Assemblyman Fabian Nunez and 12 other legislators wrote Tuesday in a letter to officials including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s chief of staff and members of the commission. The FEHC, a quasi-judicial administrative agency, decides discrimination cases brought by the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, a separate agency. The commission’s rulings can be reviewed by a state superior court judge, and if upheld, they can be referred to as precedent in future FEHC hearings. The State and Consumer Services Agency, which handles administrative duties for the FEHC, has proposed that the state Office of Administrative Hearings, which already handles dispute resolution for hundreds of state and local agencies, swallow up FEHC’s civil rights caseload. The proposal is scheduled to be considered (.pdf) by the commission on Tuesday. Leslie Lopez, general counsel for SCSA, said the change would let the FEHC draw on a larger staff of administrative law judges who can hear cases throughout the state. The FEHC now has three administrative law judges, she said. The Office of Administrative Hearings has 79, according to its Web site. “The governor and the agency and the commission are all very committed to seeing civil rights enforced. And we want to do that in a way that’s the most efficient and the most effective possible,” Lopez said. The California Attorneys, Administrative Law Judges and Hearing Officers in State Employment union also wrote to the commission on Tuesday to express “grave concern” about the proposal. Among other arguments, the union’s chief counsel, Jerry Scribner, wrote that the FEHC’s current administrative law judges have specialized civil rights knowledge the higher-volume OAH can’t replicate.

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