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Administrative law

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Description: Branch of law governing those who implement public policy when they are acting in their official capacity.


Significance: Through administrative law, courts prevent administrative agencies and officials from exceeding their legitimate authority. The Supreme Court, in various cases, determined whether specific administrative procedures violated the due process clause.


Administrators, those who carry out public policy, have discretion in how they fulfill their responsibilities. Their discretion, however, is limited by the U.S. Constitution. If they are state administrators, their discretion is limited by both the U.S. Constitution and their state constitutions. The Supreme Court does not enforce the commands of a state constitution that is the job of state courts but it does enforce the language of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments prohibiting federal and state officials from denying life, liberty, or property, without due process of law. Administrative law, therefore, has a constitutional component. Administrative law also has a statutory component. When administrators attempt to carry out public policy, they are doing what they believe they have been authorized to do by a legislative enactment. For example, Congress may have enacted a statute to regulate a particular industry and given the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) responsibility for implementing the law. A corporation subject to the law might recognize Congress's constitutional authority to enact such legislation but challenge EPA regulations on grounds that the agency misinterpreted what Congress authorized it to do. If such a challenge reached the Court, it would be up to the Court to interpret the meaning of the statutory language. In other words, the Court would be second-guessing the administrative agency, and its interpretation of the law would be binding on the agency.


Administrative Due Process

A major constitutional concern of the Court is ensuring that administrative procedures treat people fairly. In Goldberg v. Kelly (1970), within the context of welfare rights, the Court noted that Congress had established the policy of providing welfare payments to people who had demonstrated their poverty. Though funded by the federal government, the policy was carried out by the states, and the Court held that a state could not terminate payments to welfare recipients without first according them a hearing in which they had an opportunity to establish their continued eligibility. The state procedure permitted a hearing after the termination of payments, but the Court found that a posttermination hearing did not satisfy the requirements of due process. Moreover, the Court specified several procedural rights that due process required in a pretermination hearing, procedures similar to those used in a court trial. Such hearings, whether they come before or after an administrative action, are called administrative adjudications. The Court did not, however, interpret due process as requiring that all administrative adjudications contain every procedure that the Goldberg case mandated in the welfare rights context. Instead, it interpreted administrative due process flexibly. The Court required that administrators use fair procedures, but in Mathews v. Eldridge (1976), it also recognized that what is required for fairness is not the same in all administrative situations.


Judicial Deference

Although the constitutional claim of due process plays an important role in the Court's administrative law decisions, the Court did not overlook the need for effective government and tried to avoid tying the hands of administrators so that they are unable to carry out public policy efficiently. In the welfare case, for example, the Court was cognizant of the administrators’ responsibility to protect the taxpayers’ money. In the Goldberg case, the balance tipped in favor of due process. However, in cases involving statutory interpretation, the Court often shows deference to administrators and recognizes that they are specialists in their fields while most justices are not educated in chemistry, physics, biology, or medicine. Such technical knowledge would be necessary if the Court were wisely or intelligently to supersede administrators’ interpretations of how they should carry out the laws entrusted to them by Congress, laws such as the various clean-air acts or the Occupational Safety and Health Act (1970). In the 1970's the federal courts went through a period in which they rejected a deferential role, and their activism received scholarly criticism. In Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Corp. v. Natural Resources Defense Council (1978), the Court endorsed a deferential approach when it reversed an activist lower court decision regarding administrative rule making under the Administrative Procedure Act of 1947. In Chevron, U.S.A. v. Natural Resources Defense Council (1984), the Court accepted the EPA's interpretation of regulatory legislation rather than imposing a contrary interpretation. When the Court takes a deferential approach, the agency interpretation must merely be reasonable for the Court to accept it. Interest groups actively try to influence the way that agencies interpret regulatory laws. Therefore, when the Court decides administrative law cases, it is functioning in the political process as well as the legal process. In the course of carrying out their duties, administrators may inadvertently cause harm to citizens. For much of U.S. history, citizens could not sue the government. However, as a result of the Federal Tort Claims Act of 1946, it became possible, under certain circumstances, to bring a lawsuit against a government agency. This created a new dimension of administrative law. The Court's interpretation of this statute over the years had considerable impact on the relationship between administrators and citizens.



Further Reading

  • Cann, Steven J. Administrative Law. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1995.
  • Mashaw, Jerry L. Due Process in the Administrative State. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985.
  • Melnick, R. Shop. Regulation and the Courts: The Case of the Clean Air Act. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1983.
  • O’Brien, David M. What Process Is Due? Courts and Science-Policy Disputes. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1987.