Administrative Law

Administrative law is a branch of public law that is concerned with the procedures, rules, and regulations of a number of governmental agencies. Administrative law specifically deals with the such administrative agencies’ decision-making capabilities, as they carry out laws passed by state and federal legislatures. An example of administrative law is the regulation and operation of the Social Security Administration, and the administration of benefits to the people.  To explore this concept, consider the following administrative law definition.

Definition of Administrative Law


  1. The body of law dealing with the establishment, duties, rules, and powers of government administrative agencies.


Circa 1920       With the development of American regulatory commissions

What is Administrative Law

Administrative law in the United States is a branch of the law that is somewhat nebulous, as it deals with the agencies created to administer a large array of governmental programs. The administrative law system governs agencies, commissions, and boards. The public’s interaction with administrative law most often occurs in connection with some type of public benefit, which has been denied or terminated. For instance, when a family’s food stamp benefits are terminated because of a supposed program violation.

Administrative bodies that provide benefits for which individuals may find themselves in need of an administrative law professional include:

  • Unemployment commissions
  • Labor commissions
  • Workers’ compensation boards
  • Licensing agencies
  • Zoning boards
  • Social Security Administration
  • Equal opportunity commissions

Administrative Agencies

The government is made up of many administrative agencies, also known as “regulatory agencies.” These administrative agencies operate at the city, county, state, and federal levels, administering public programs. Such agencies have the authority to authorize benefits, issue permits and licenses, investigate complaints, and punish infractions.

Administrative agencies derive their powers by way of the U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 8, known as the “Necessary and Proper Clause,” which grants Congress power to make all laws necessary to carry out the powers specified in the Constitution. This includes authority to create and govern agencies to administer programs created by the government.

In general, administrative agencies are charged with protecting the public’s civil rights, privacy, and safety. For example, the Clean Air Act, created by Congress to prevent pollution, is administered by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (the “EPA”). The EPA has the power to enforce the provisions of the Act, which entails performing inspections, investigating complaints, holding hearings, and issuing penalties for violations.

Administrative Procedure Act

The Administrative Procedure Act (the “APA”) is a federal statute that dictates how federal administrative agencies can create regulations. The Act, enacted in 1946, also outlines a process for federal courts to directly review decisions made by administrative agencies. The APA is tasked with providing safeguards, regulating the roles and powers of governmental agencies. According to the Attorney General’s Manual on the Administrative Procedure Act, the purposes of the APA include:

  • To ensure agencies inform the public about their organization, procedures, the rules
  • To provide the public with an opportunity to participate in the process of rulemaking
  • To establish uniform standards for rulemaking and adjudication
  • To outline the scope of judicial review

Administrative Law Judges

An administrative law judge presides over trials, and determines the outcome of claims or disputes that involve administrative law. Administrative law judges, like other types of judges, have the authority to administer oaths, listen to testimony, rule on evidence and questions of fact, and make legal decisions. These judges hold domain over bench trials in administrative law matters.

Federal administrative law judges, (“ALJs”) are appointed based on test scores and an oral examination. The four-hour written test and oral examination are administered by the Office of Personal Management. ALJs are considered Article I judges according to the Constitution. They do not have complete judicial power over life, liberty, and property. Rather, they are considered part of the executive branch of the government, holding authority only to render decisions on administrative matters. This is based on the separation of powers as specified in the Constitution. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia explained:

“The dissent overstates when it claims that agencies exercise “legislative power” and “judicial power” … The former is vested exclusively in Congress … the latter in the “one supreme Court” and “such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish” … Agencies make rules … and conduct adjudications … and have done so since the beginning of the Republic. These activities take “legislative” and “judicial” forms, but they are exercises of—indeed, under our constitutional structure they must be exercises of—the “executive Power.”

When an ALJ rules on a case, agencies often use an internal appellate body to review the decision. Some even utilize a cabinet secretary to determine the final appeal. If all appeals within the agency are exhausted, a person can file an appeal with state or federal courts.

There are many federal agencies within the United States that use administrative law judges. These include:

  • Coast Guard
  • Department of Labor
  • Department of Health and Human Services
  • Department of Veterans Affairs
  • Environmental Protection Agency
  • Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
  • Federal Aviation Administration
  • Federal Labor Relations Authority
  • Federal Maritime Commission
  • Food and Drug Administration
  • Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission
  • Postal Service
  • Social Security Administration

Some of the state agencies that use ALJs include state departments of:

  • revenue
  • consumer affairs
  • health services
  • environmental conservation
  • labor

Administrative Courts

Administrative law cases are tried in administrative courts, where the individual appears before an administrative law judge, a council, or a tribunal of people with expertise in the field. The rules and regulations of administrative courts differ from regular civil and criminal courts, and their authority is limited to making administrative decisions, such as whether to approve or deny benefits, or to confirm or overturn a penalty.

Example of Administrative Law Matter in an Administrative Court

Betty’s application for Social Security Disability benefits has been denied. She follows the appeals process, but is denied again. Betty may request a hearing before an administrative law judge. She will be required to appear in an administrative court, where she will present her case, and answer questions posed by the judge. In this example of administrative law appeals, the administrative law judge will consider Betty’s appeal, and render a decision on whether she should be granted disability benefits.

Administrative Law Example

In response to an 80% drop in raisin prices during the Great Depression, Congress passed the Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act of 1937, which allowed the Department of Agriculture to issue marketing orders. In this example of administrative law in action, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) promptly issued an order to raisin farmers requiring them to withhold a portion of their annual harvests from the market, which would result in higher prices.

The USDA gave the Raisin Administrative Committee the authority to determine amount of raisins that would be held in reserve by the government, and the amount that could be sold on the open market. The committee was composed of raisin industry members appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture. The Committee reserved more than 30% of all of the raisins grown in the U.S., selling them on non-competitive markets, for such purposes as rewarding foreign governments, or increasing U.S. exports. If there are raisins left after these sales, the Committee can give them back to growers who agree to cut back their production the following year.

Marvin Horne, a California raisin grower, did not agree with giving his raisins to the committee. In order to get around the fact that the Committee collects their raisin quota from distributors, rather than from the farmers, Horne restructured his farming operations to act as both grower and distributor. He then claimed that the reserve requirements set by law did not apply to him. The Committee sent its trucks to Horne’s farm anyway, but he refused to let them onto his property. Horne was fined the value of the raisins, plus a fine, which amounted to nearly $700,000.

Horne responded by filing a federal lawsuit against the Commission, claiming that the raisin reserve violated the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states:

” … nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

The District Court judge did not agree with Horne, and granted a summary judgment in favor of the USDA. Horne appealed the decision, but the Ninth Circuit Appellate Court affirmed the lower court’s decision, though it stated that the Circuit Court had no authority to hear the case as it was a question of constitutionality.

Horne took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that the Circuit Court did have authority to hear the case, and sent it back. The Circuit Court ruled that personal property, such as raisins, did not enjoy the same level of protection under the Fifth Amendment as real property, such as the land on which the raisins were planted. Horne again appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.

In the Court’s ruling, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, it was decided that personal property has personal property and real property have been equally protected for over 800 years. The Court ruled that the raisin reserve requirement amounted to taking, as provided by the Fifth Amendment, as the government physically seized the growers’ raisins. As a result of the ruling, Horne was due just compensation for his raisins, which is the market value of the raisins at the time they were, or would have been, seized. In this case, the Committee had already determined the value of the raisins when it fined Horne.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Appellate Court – A court having jurisdiction to review decisions of a trial-level or other lower court.
  • Authority – The right or power to make decisions, to give orders, or to control something or someone.
  • Clause – A section of a legal document that relates to a particular point or issue.
  • Congress – The legislative branch of the United States federal government, composed of the House of Representatives and the Senate.
  • DefendantA party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Federal Trade Commission – An independent federal agency tasked with protecting consumers and ensuring a strong, competitive market by enforcing antitrust and consumer protection laws.
  • PlaintiffA person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.
  • Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to make a determination in a civil matter.

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