Former Superior Court Judge Beverly Hodgson in her opinion piece, “State Agency Needs To Change Rules For Hearings” (Connecticut Law Tribune, May 30) had it exactly right in urging enactment of P.A. 14-209, “An Act Concerning Administrative Hearings Conducted by the Department of Social Services.” The legislation is awaiting action by the governor, but there are rumors that some people are encouraging him to veto it. What a mistake that would be.
The act passed the Connecticut House of Representatives and Senate on consent calendars, without opposition, at the end of the legislative session. The governor should sign this bill to restore both actual fairness and the appearance of fairness to the administrative hearing process at the Department of Social Services (DSS). The bill would make clear that DSS fair hearing officers, who are supposed to be impartial and independent, cannot obtain ex parte advice from agency staff members when holding hearing related to an individual’s request for benefits.
Note that the measure does not prevent seeking such advice – only that there be notice to the applicant for benefits and the opportunity to respond.
DSS provides Connecticut residents with assistance in meeting basic needs for food, health care and subsistence level income. The landmark welfare law case, Goldberg v. Kelly, 397 U.S. 254 (1970), required that termination of such benefits must be preceded by a fair hearing conducted by an impartial hearing officer. Connecticut’s commitment to a fair administrative process is codified in the state’s version of the Uniform Administrative Procedure Act (UAPA) at CGS 4-166 et seq.
The rules governing administrative hearings include Connecticut General Statutes section 4-181, which prohibits ex parte communications with hearing officers. In Martone v. Lensink, 207 Conn. 296, at 303 (1988), the Connecticut Supreme Court confirmed that this prohibition applies to communications concerning law as well as facts. But current practice at DSS is to permit hearing officers to seek legal advice from department attorneys on an ex parte basis.
Section 1(d) of P.A. 14-209 offers a simple solution to this violation of fundamental fairness. It acknowledges that hearing officers may in some cases need to obtain legal advice on difficult questions. It does not bar hearing officers from seeking advice. It does require, however, that discussion of legal or factual issues that arise in relation to a contested hearing be on the record with notice to all parties to the hearing.
The governor should endorse this simple affirmation of our commitment to truly fair hearings for residents seeking state help in difficult times. •
Connecticut Law Tribune Editorial Board Chair Joette Katz recused herself from discussing or voting on this editorial.