• What is Administrative Law? An Overview of Administrative Law

    Administrative law is the body of statutory and case law that governs the conduct of administrative agencies and the processes and requirements for bringing a claim against an agency for its conduct. Administrative agencies are responsible for promulgating, administering, and enforcing regulatory schemes passed by the legislative branch, and signed into law by the President. Some examples of agencies include the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Administrative agencies are overseen by the executive branch.

    While agencies are overseen by the executive, they are somewhat apart from it. Agencies are created by statute, and the executive has the authority to appoint the agency head and other inferior officers of the agency. Some agency heads, or administrators, are appointed for a term of office and can only be removed for “good cause;” good cause removal limits the President’s authority to remove an administrator to instances of wrongful conduct like negligence or malfeasance—a mere policy disagreement is insufficient. Because of this insulation, agencies that have an administrator with good cause removal clause are referred to as independent agencies. Another distinguishing feature of an independent agency is that in some instances, the agency head is actually a board or commission with a number of members. The SEC and the NLRB are examples of such independent agencies.

    Generally speaking, the purpose and function of administrative agencies is to effectuate regulatory schemes devised and passed by congress. Some agencies are responsible for overseeing multiple regulatory schemes. For instance, the EPA oversees both the Clean Water Act (CWA) and the Clean Air Act (CAA). Some regulations require that agencies work together to effectuate a policy. For example, the Endangered Species Act requires that federal agencies cooperate with each other and the Fish & Wildlife Service to ensure that federal projects do not endanger the habitats of endangered species.

    Administrative agencies are seen as an efficient way to effectual government policy because they are specialized bodies meant to deal with specific issues. Agencies are typically staffed by experts in the field overseen by the agency, and this expertise gives rise to an ability to handle complex problems more quickly than an otherwise and relatively less informed deliberative body like congress. To aid in the quick and expert effectuation of congressional policy, agencies are granted authority to promulgate rules and regulations, enforce those rules and regulations, and to adjudicate disputes. This combination of legislative, executive, and judicial functions is highly efficient, but raises some serious concerns about the separation of powers. Many of these concerns are ameliorated by hierarchical structures within the agencies themselves, the political oversight provided by congress and the executive branch, and the reviewability of agency action by the federal courts.

    The purpose of this article is to highlight the process of causing agency action to be reviewed by the federal courts. This kind of suit generally occurs after an agency has acted in such a way as to harm the complainant and the complainant has exhausted the remedies made available by the agency.

    Agency Authorities

    Agencies are governed by law originating from two sources, their “organic” statute and the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). The organic statute is the law passed by congress giving the agency its authority to make and enforce rules and regulations, and the procedures required for doing so. If the organic statute does not state such procedures, such conduct is, by default, governed by the APA. Because an agency can be responsible for administering several organic statutes, it will act according to the statute that it is acting pursuant to. To continue with the EPA example, when the EPA promulgates a rule under the CWA it must abide by the procedures provided under the CWA. When it acts under its authorities granted by the CAA, it proceeds according to that statute’s mandates. Where the statute was silent on a process, the EPA would follow the procedures mandated by the APA.

    There are three main categories of agency action: rulemaking, adjudication, and enforcement. Rulemaking is a quasi-legislative authority. Rules have prospective effect and apply to many parties. Adjudications are like a judicial proceeding; they have a retroactive effect and usually apply to one or very few parties. Enforcement is the day to day operation and administration of the agency’s responsibilities. It is an executive function. Because enforcement is largely left to the discretion of agencies and because courts are reluctant to interfere with agency discretion, most actionable conduct involves the rulemaking and adjudicative authorities of an agency.

    One of the discretionary aspects of agency action is whether to proceed by rulemaking or adjudication. There are pros and cons in choosing either path. For instance, adjudications are much faster than rulemaking, but such action is open for a judicial review of its validity in every agency proceeding. Rulemakings, on the other hand, take a much longer period of time to be enforceable, but the validity of rulemaking can be decided by a single judicial review.

    It should be noted that these categories cover a broad range of conduct. For instance, adjudication is not always like a trial. An adjudication can be a very simple process like submitting an application for social security disability benefits and having them granted or denied. Another example could be the issuance of permits by an agency; it is like adjudication because the applicant’s individual right to the permit is being adjudicated. The spectrum of conduct does, in fact, range from the highly informal to very formal.
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