A state House committee balked Thursday at the governor’s administrative law division plans to handle most disputes between state agencies and the public via telephone hearings.
The state House and Governmental Affairs Committee action came after committee members and private lawyers said people should get a chance for a face-to-face hearing that’s open to the public.
“There are some serious problems with these rules,” committee Chairman Tim Burns, R-Mandeville, said.
The legislative panel excised the rules dealing with telephone hearings, then approved others designed to update the state Division of Administrative Law operations.
Administrative law division Director Ann Wise said that had not been done for 10 years and changes in the entity’s authority warranted the update. The movement to electronic filing and telephone hearings helps the agency handle a high volume of cases, and people seem to like the idea, she said.
“Almost everyone wants the phone hearing,” Wise said.
Wise said relying more on telephone hearings would save an estimated $78,000 in the first budget year and $96,000 in the next year.
The Division of Administrative Law handles disputes involving such issues as driver’s license suspensions in DWIs, unemployment compensation, day care licensing, Medicaid disputes and most recently ethics conflicts.
Wise said her agency handles about 20,000 cases annually.
But state Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, said the telephone hearing “takes away an opportunity for someone to be heard.” She said the small savings is not worth the cost of depriving an individual of an in-person hearing.
She also said there are problems with the current system where if someone is 15 minutes late, the telephone connection and hearing is terminated.
“There’s a little bit of inflexibility,” agreed state Rep. Greg Miller, R-Norco. “If you are in court and a few minutes late, the judge can continue it or have a rule to show cause...”
Lawyer Carson Marcantel, representing the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, said the telephone hearing proposal is the “punch No. 2” when it comes to defense of people fighting loss of their drivers’s license over DWI arrests.
“Punch No. 1 was passage of a law prohibiting being able to subpoena the officer who made the arrest,” Marcantel said. “Now we are being excluded from showing up in person and having our client argue on their behalf.”
Most of the people don’t have lawyers and their driver’s license “constitutes their livelihood,” he said.
Those in disputes with state agencies should at least have an option to have an in-person hearing, opponents said.
Wise said telephone hearings “allow meaningful opportunities to be heard.”
Wise said they are more convenient for those in disputes who don’t have to travel to hearings and spend a lot of time away from work. The telephone hearings also cut down on travel of administrative law judges that hear the cases, she said.
Wise said there could be exceptions in higher-profile ethics and day care center licensing disputes.
Burns said a public hearing concerning the proposed rules would have been a better setting to work out problems prior to them hitting the committee for review.
Copyright © 2011, Capital City Press LLC • 7290 Bluebonnet Blvd., Baton Rouge, LA 70810 • All Rights Reserved