Not much caselaw exists concerning how a hearing should be run. This is likely a result of the standard generally applied to the judicial review of administrative hearing officer decisions. Courts will likely overturn a decision for procedural reasons only where the hearing officer has "abused his discretion." Ex parte Medical Licensure Comm'n of Alabama 897 So. 2d 1093,
1096-97 (Ala. 2004). This is a vague standard, but it implies at least some deference to the rulings and orders made by the administrative hearing officer. The reason why the administrative hearing officer is vested with substantial discretion in determining hearing procedures is that discretion “… is indispensable whenever individuality is needed…The administrative process allows discretion in order to take care of the need for individualized justice…” Old Abe Co. v. New Mexico Mining Comm. 908 P.2d 776, 121 N.M. 83 (NM S.Ct. 12/11/95).
I'm an advocate for extensive training of hearing officers concerning how to apply these discretionary procedures in a fair manner. I'll admit a bias here: some of my work involves training hearing officers, for special education hearings and for other types of hearings. Nonetheless, I strongly believe that high quality skills training is essential for hearing officers. That is why I will be giving skills-based trainings at the Hearing Officer Academy next month.
In any event, the work of the special education hearing officer is very important. The hearing officer is essential to the proper working of the due process system. I recognize that due process is only one dispute resolution mechanism, and, indeed, I advocate mediation as the mechanism most likely to restore the relationship of parents and school personnel. Hearings, however, remain an essential procedural safeguard that is absolutely necessary to the guarantee of FAPE to children with disabilities. Accordingly, hearing officers should be respected. They also should receive sufficient training and support from the state department of education to be able to do their jobs well. Their independence and freedom to make their own decisions should never be challenged.