Branch of law governing those who implement public policy when they are acting in their official capacity.
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.
A major constitutional concern of the Court is ensuring that administrative procedures treat people fairly. In Goldberg v. Kelly
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
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
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.
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.
Butz v. Economou
Due process, procedural
Federal Tort Claims Act
Goldberg v. Kelly
Marshall v. Barlow’s
Stevens, John Paul