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Choreographing Justice: Administrative Law Judges and the Management of Welfare Disputes

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Abstract

A significant form of civil justice is administrative hearings, used to resolve individual disputes in the provision of government welfare benefits. Drawing from ethnographic observations, analysis of recorded transcripts of the hearings, and interviews with administrative law judges in the United States, we examine two contrasting approaches to judging, one a ‘bureaucratic’ approach which replicates the style of decision-making on the front lines, and the other an ‘adjudicatory’ approach which relies on the norms and conventions of judicial decision making. To understand how each approach manifests in the hearing room, we use the methodology of conversation analysis to compare and contrast the different verbal strategies and techniques that characterize each approach. To understand why a judge may choose one approach over another we explore how judges construct their professional identity and manage the tasks of judging.

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