Even if lawmakers couldn’t ask specific questions about the alleged-nasty-business at the Washington state Office of the Insurance Commissioner, a hearing Monday in the state Senate presented an outstanding argument for reform. It started with the careful way that administrative law judge Patricia Petersen had to choose her words.
Petersen started a ruckus last month when she said her bosses in Commissioner Mike Kreidler’s office have been leaning on her in order to obtain favorable rulings. At Monday’s hearing of the Senate Law & Justice Committee, she spoke publicly for the first time since her accusation — but she labored under a gag order from Kreidler that prevented her from talking specifically about her case.
So Petersen found another way to make her point. In general, she told the committee it is a big mistake for judges to answer to the agency heads who employ them. In the aggregate, it would be “a travesty” if people who appeal state-agency decisions don’t get a fair hearing. “And if a judge is told by a party [to a case] to decide his or her cases in a certain way and one party can threaten the judge’s job if the case is not decided in that party’s favor, then the central pillar of our democracy is corroded.”
The fact that she had to tell her story that way — at Kreidler’s insistence — ties the whole thing up with ribbon and a bow. In written complaints filed previously, Petersen says she was threatened with a negative job evaluation because she wouldn’t submit to control; she now is on administrative leave while Kreidler’s office coordinates an investigation of itself. Maybe speaking generally is the right thing to do in this situation — the matter is bigger than the Office of Insurance Commissioner. Petersen’s job hangs by a thread because she has challenged a system that allows state agencies to dictate the outcome of administrative hearings. The problem ought to appall anyone who believes the judicial system should operate with a semblance of fairness.More