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What Is Administrative Law?

Sometimes, it can seem like government agencies make it up as they go. Administrative law defines how government operates at every level, from federal agencies to city councils and county offices. Administrative law regulates the creation of agencies, how they interact, and their authority.

In theory, administrative law is top-down, from federal to state to local laws. In reality, nothing is that simple. In some cases, local laws could have precedence over state laws. Sometimes, it isn't clear which laws apply. The federal law that created administrative procedure provides basic guidelines, but no more than that. It is up to the agencies themselves to work things out.

Where Administrative Law Begins

Under the U.S. Constitution, only Congress has the right to regulate government agencies. Congress delegates some of its regulatory authority to various agencies. Some agencies, such as the Department of Justice and the Department of Labor, act under the direct control of Congress and the President.

Other agencies, like the Federal Trade Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency, exist independently. They can create new regulations based on congressional laws in coordination with federal and state agencies.

Congress passed the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) to ensure uniform regulatory actions. The APA established the procedures for creating new rules and adjudicating regulations, claims, and disputes involving the agency. Whenever an agency like the EPA develops a new regulation, it must give the public a chance to comment on the new law in person or in writing. The Federal Register contains the proposed rules for comment.

How Administrative Law Functions

Administrative agencies exist at almost every level of government. Federal agencies handle government benefits like Social Security, environmental laws, and workplace safety. State agencies enforce state regulations but may also carry out federal government mandates. For instance, OSHA sets workplace safety requirements, but each state develops its own state-specific guidelines.

Under the APA, agencies can oversee their functions without bringing all matters back to the legislature. There are two types of hearings that manage agency regulations.

  • Regulatory hearings allow the public and other agencies to comment on proposed regulations. A regulatory hearing presents a new law or amendment to an existing law. The agency must allow all affected individuals and entities to challenge or defend the change. These hearings can also involve new buildings or zoning variances. For instance, suppose a developer wants to build in a protected wetland and says they will abide by all federal and state regulations. A regulatory hearing allows nearby residents to hear the developer's claims. They can make their own protests and requests for more information.
  • Administrative hearings hear cases of regulatory violation. If you want to challenge an agency decision, you can request a hearing with an administrative law judge (ALJ). You can have an attorney to give you legal advice. These hearings only rule on violations of the agency's regulations, not any other claims.

Agencies can issue their own interpretations or guidance on their regulations. For example, state bar associations are responsible for issuing opinions on instructions by the governing board. This guidance helps attorneys give legal assistance to clients in hearings and trials but does not have the force of law.

The U.S. Supreme Court gives great leeway to government agencies when they interpret statutes affecting their operations. The Court defers to agencies based on three major court cases that established when agencies can make their own rulings:

  • Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. NRDC467 U.S. 837 (1984) At this level, the courts defer to agency interpretation of statutes unless they are clearly unreasonable. Under a Chevron review, the agency's interpretations are binding.
  • Auer v. Robbins519 U.S. 452 (1997) Ambiguous regulations receive the Auer deference. Auer interpretations are binding unless the interpretation is inconsistent with the intent of the regulation.
  • Skidmore v. Swift, 323 U.S. 134 (1944) If Chevron or Auer do not apply, the courts apply Skidmore. It is not binding on courts. The degree of deference depends on the agency's knowledge of the matter.

Who Needs an Administrative Law Attorney?

The intent of the APA was to free the court system by allowing agencies to hold their own hearings. Whenever agencies make decisions affecting rights or benefits, the individual affected has the right to appeal the decision.

Administrative law is a practice area of public law. With more than a hundred different administrative agencies covering everything from transportation to workers' compensation, administrative law touches all aspects of life.

The first recourse is usually an administrative hearing. For instance, suppose you receive Social Security payments. If you have a problem with a payment, your first step to correct the problem is to request a hearing with an administrative law judge. Although this seems complicated, it is faster than requiring people to sue the Social Security Administration every time something goes wrong.

Administrative lawyers are essential for non-profit agencies that act as watchdogs on corporations and regulatory agencies. These agencies often provide legal services for people needing help with their own administrative issues. Because regulatory agencies receive great discretion from the courts, non-lawyers can find themselves at a disadvantage during hearings. You need an attorney if you have a legal matter involving a government agency.

If you have a legal issue involving a state or federal administrative agency, consult an administrative law attorney immediately to preserve your legal rights.

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