The legal process begins with a petition. This allows the people who will be adversely affected by an agency's decision to explain their case. The agency must review the statement, then determine if it will change its decision or dispute the facts.The facts are often disputed, especially in the phosphate mining permit process. If this occurs, an independent party is needed to make a neutral decision. The petition is referred to the Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH) for review.
Once it is confirmed that the petitioners have a “substantial interest” in the issue, the DOAH will assign the case to an Administrative Law Judge and a hearing is scheduled. Information is gathered on the case, motions are filed and petitions are often consolidated. The hearing can be rescheduled multiple times to allow adequate time for preparation.
An Administrative Law Judge presides over the hearing, and it is always open to the public. During the hearing both sides call expert witnesses and rebut opposing witnesses. In the Ona permit challenge, this process took a little over one month. Based on the information provided, the Administrative Law Judge will issue either a recommended order or final order. A final order is concrete and commits the agency to a certain action.
A recommended order is a bit more complicated. It allows the state agency to revise their position based on the judge's findings. The agency has 90 days to report their final decision. If the agency's final decision still poses adverse effects on the petitioner, that petitioner can file an appeal. The case is then referred to the District Court of Appeals and the process starts over again based on new information or arguments.