Today, I had the privilege to accompany a legal aid attorney to a social security hearing in front of an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) in Washington, D.C. The hearing was held in one of the many non-descript office buildings in the northwest sector of DC. Visitors arriving at the building must present identification in order to venture past the lobby. And this lobby was not one of the friendly lobbies that corporations sometimes host. This lobby was bare-boned with not a chair or restroom in sight. After a 15 minute walk from the Metro station in the June heat, I was desperately in need of a few paper towels to mop my glistening cheeks. With no relief available in the lobby, I continued up to the correct floor under the false belief that I would find a restroom there. I actually did, but they were locked and “for employees only.” Discouraged, I returned to the lobby and inquired at the desk.

Armed with the information that there was a public restroom in the social security lobby, I returned upstairs and entered the hearing office. By this time, I was so distracted by the sweat dripping down my neck that I walked blithely past the security checkpoint and straight to the restroom. (This wasn’t as much of a relief as I hoped since there didn’t seem to be any air conditioning vents to cool the space). Upon my return to the lobby, I was a bit more observant and realized my faux pas. I quickly apologized to the security officer and went through the correct security procedures. Of course, this leads to other questions about why I was not challenged previously, but that is a discussion for another day.

When our case was called, we entered the courtroom. And it was undoubtedly a courtroom with all of the accouterments including the bench, the bar, and a clerk. Although it was smaller than the typical courtroom, there was no doubt about its purpose. Interestingly, the berobed judge was already in his seat when we were admitted.

As we entered, the ALJ addressed the attorney and enquired (quite unhappily) who the unexpected visitor (me) might be. Once my identity had been established, the judge asked our client whether my presence was acceptable. He then instructed the attorney–in no uncertain terms–that I should not participate or disrupt the hearing in any way. I actually was amused by this–what did he expect that I would do?–before I realized that my presence was starting the hearing out poorly for our client.

Reflecting upon the ALJ’s queries about my presence, I understand that these hearings often involve discussing medical issues and medical records so HIPAA regulations apply. Also, the hearings are not open to the public. However, I am still puzzled because as a law clerk, I am already privy to all of the medical information in the file. In some cases, I become more familiar with the medical findings than the attorney since I spend hours poring over the records in order to find anything that was missed or that would help our client. (In a recent case, I was sure that our client had been misdiagnosed. Completely independently, a new doctor changed the diagnosis). As the hearing proceeded though, I was relieved to find that the ALJ focused on the case and did not seem to let his pique over my presence cloud his fairness in conducting the hearing. In fact, I was impressed with the questions that he asked and way that he clarified the issues.

However, the event left me with many questions about the administrative court system. How many administrative hearings are held behind closed doors each year? How intimidating are the hearings for citizens who represent themselves? How do clients survive financially for the years that it can take to navigate the social security gauntlet (6-8 years is not abnormal)?

As a result of this experience, I am more interested in the Administrative Law course that I will be taking soon. I am curious to learn about all of the government entities that have administrative courts. I am also interested to see if my experiences will translate into a better understanding of the topics covered when I return to class in the fall.