September 30, 2019

Quasi-Judicial, But Not Quasi-Ethical: Conflicts of Interest and Appearance of Fairness for Hearing Examiners

  1. What ethical rules apply to hearing examiners?

In fulfilling professional responsibilities, a lawyer necessarily assumes various roles that require the performance of many difficult tasks. Not every situation which a lawyer may encounter can be foreseen, but fundamental ethical principles are always present as guidelines.

Fundamental Principles of Professional Conduct, Washington Rules of Professional Conduct.

Hearing examiners face thorny conflict of interest and appearance of fairness issues, yet hearing examiners occupy a unique status with respect to the applicability of ethical rules.  Hearing examiners serve a quasi-judicial function that is addressed only briefly by the Rules of Professional Conduct, as the Rules primarily address a lawyer’s conduct when representing clients.  The Code of Judicial Conduct applies only to judicial officers, not quasi-judicial officers such as hearing examiners.  Several canons and rules in the Code provide helpful guidance, however, regarding appearance of fairness and conflict of interest issues both within and outside of hearings.  For this reason, local hearing examiner rules and procedures sometimes reference and/or incorporate provisions of the Code.  Finally, hearing examiners are subject to state law, as well as local rules and procedures, incorporating standards of conduct relating to conflicts of interest and the appearance of fairness.

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