What Is Administrative Law? Definition and Examples

Book with title administrative law on a table.
Book with title administrative law on a table.

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Administrative law is the area of law created by the agencies and departments of the government, which carry out the laws passed by Congress or a state legislature. Administrative law governs the decision-making and rulemaking of executive branch units of government responsible for regulating areas such as trade, labor, manufacturing, civil rights, the environment, taxation, communications, and transportation.

Key Takeaways: Administrative Law

  • Administrative law is created by the regulatory agencies of the government to carry out the laws passed by Congress.
  • The regulatory agencies have enormous power to interpret congressional laws and to enact and enforce rules which carry the weight of law.
  • Administrative law governs the regulation of areas such as trade, labor, manufacturing, civil rights, the environment, taxation, communications, and transportation.
  • Citizens are most likely to deal with administrative law when they apply for government benefits.
  • Examples of administrative law include The Civil Rights Act of 1964, part of which created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the environmental protection acts, which created the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • The process by which federal agencies develop, issue, and enforce regulations is governed by the Administrative Procedures Act.

Origins of Administrative Law

Considered a branch of public law, administrative law describes the processes, priorities, and procedures of the bureaucratic agencies within a government. These agencies have enormous power to interpret congressional laws, enact various rules defining and interpreting relevant statutes, enforce those rules, and adjudicate matters according to those regulations. Despite their powers, governmental agencies must still act within Constitutional and statutory parameters.

Along with statutory law, administrative law is one of two major types of laws passed by Congress. They are both derived from the principles of the Constitution. While they are both created by Congress, they fulfill different purposes. They also have different institutions to which they are applicable.

Statutory law is the type of law that most heavily affects the daily lives of citizens. Statutory laws are created to regulate citizens and private institutions and ensure that none of them infringe upon the rights of others. Examples include the Federal Uniform Drinking Age Act of 1984 stipulating that the minimum age of those who drink alcohol is 21, anti-trust laws, and the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act of 2022—the most significant gun control law enacted in years.

Administrative law outlines how delegated power can be used by the bureaucracy. Administrative laws are less likely relatively directly affects the everyday lives of large numbers of citizens. Examples of administrative law include The Civil Rights Act of 1964, part of which created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the environmental protection acts, which created the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, and the Department of Transportation Act of 1966, which created the Department of Transportation.

When it passes a law on such complicated issues, Congress often needs help in determining the details of how the law will be implemented and enforced. The applicable administrative agencies and government departments fill in those gaps by issuing additional rules and government regulations to achieve the goals expressed by Congress. This regulatory process is the essence of administrative law.

Citizens often deal with administrative agencies and administrative law when they apply for government benefits. For example, Congress has passed laws that allow all retired and certain disabled individuals to receive government assistance. The Social Security Administration (SSA) is the administrative agency created to implement Congress's social security and disability laws. The SSA receives applications when people apply for retirement or disability benefits, determines who is eligible for the benefits, and passes anti-fraud rules and regulations to ensure that only the people who deserve these benefits receive them. Generally, administrative agencies are created to protect a public interest rather than private rights such as privacy.

The fundamental legal principle of judicial review empowers the U.S. Supreme Court to review laws passed by Congress and regulations issued by the Executive Branch administrative agencies to determine whether they are constitutional.

There are two especially important landmark periods in the evolution of administrative law in the United States: the creation of the Federal Register and Code of Federal Regulations and the passage of the Administrative Procedures Act of 1946.

In overcoming the Great Depression of 1929 to 1939, the New Deal programs of the President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration brought a vast increase in new agencies and regulatory activity. The explosion of new regulations led to the creation (watch the video) of the Federal Register and Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) in 1935 to keep track of them all.

The Federal Register is the official journal of the federal government of the United States that contains government agency rules, proposed rules, and public notices. The Code of Federal Regulations is the annual codification of the administrative regulations issued by the Executive Branch departments and agencies of the federal government.

After World War II, concerns about the power of agencies and their haphazard rulemaking procedures led to the enactment of the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) in 1946. The APA governs the process by which federal agencies develop and issue regulations. It includes requirements for publishing notices of proposed and final rulemaking in the Federal Register and provides opportunities for the public to comment on notices of proposed rulemaking. The APA is designed to ensure uniformity and transparency in the procedures used by federal agencies.

Civil Law vs Common Law 

The legal systems in countries around the world generally fall into one of two main categories: common law systems and civil law systems. There are roughly 150 countries that have what can be described as primarily civil law systems, whereas there are about 80 common law countries. A few common law countries include The United States, England, India, and Canada. Some civil law countries include China, Japan, Germany, France, and Spain.

Common Law

In common law countries like the United States, case law— “precedence” in the form of published court opinions—is used to decide cases at hand. Under civil law, codified statutes and ordinances rule the land. Some countries like South Africa use a combination of civil and common law. Since common law follows precedence, bad or unjust decision-making can occur. There is also the difficulty of continuing with a judicial process if no precedence can be found. 

In common law countries, the laws governing a case are based on both legal precedence, created by judges, and statutory laws, created by legislatures. In trials, judges act as impartial referees between opposing parties to a case. A jury may determine the facts and the judge will decide the law to be applied.

Civil Law

Civil law systems place greater emphasis on legal codes crafted by the legislature. Civil law statutes tend to be more detailed than statutes created under common law systems, and contain continuously updated legal codes that specify all matters capable of being brought before a court, the procedure to be followed, and the appropriate punishment.

In civil law countries, judges are often described as “investigators.” They generally take the lead in the proceedings by bringing charges, establishing facts through witness examination, and applying remedies found in long-standing, sometimes ancient legal codes. Juries are rarely used. Instead, a judge or panel of judges will decide the facts and the legal code to be applied.

A brief review of their historical bases helps in understanding the differences between these systems of law.

Common law system can be traced back to the early English monarchy, which used to issue formal orders called “writs”—written commands in the name of a court or other legal authority to act, or abstain from acting, in some way. Because writs were not sufficient to cover all situations, courts were ultimately established to hear complaints and devise appropriate remedies based on equitable principles taken from many sources of authority, such as Roman law and “natural” law. As these decisions were collected and published, it became possible for courts to look up prior opinions and apply them to current cases. Thus, the common law developed.

Civil law in other European nations is generally traced back to the Napoleonic Code, which was adopted in France in 1804. Since then, other civil-law countries have enacted similar codes, such as the German Civil Code in 1896. The Napoleonic Code and the German Civil Code have served as models for the vast majority of other modern civil law countries around the world.

In common law countries, bureaucratic agencies make up the largest percentage of the government sector of government and generate the highest number of decisions that directly affect the citizens’ lives. The role of administrative law in common law countries is to govern these agencies and other public bodies in rulemaking in areas such as the issuance of licenses, law enforcement, hiring of employees, and awarding of government contracts. They also guide in the making of other rules and regulations.

Most countries that follow common law have enacted legal procedures and judicial review processes—such as the Administrative Procedures Act—which place limitations on the reviewability of decisions or regulations made by bodies involved in administrative law.

In common law countries, bureaucratic agencies make up the largest percentage of the government sector of government and generate the highest number of decisions that directly affect the citizens’ lives. They also guide in the making of other rules and regulations.

Countries that follow the common law have come enacted legal procedures and judicial review processes, such as the Administrative Procedures Act, which places limitations on the reviewability of decisions or conclusions made by bodies involved in administrative law. The power to review decisions that concern administrative law is normally established and guarded by statute but was initially established by English law. In common law countries, the power to pass writs such as writs of certiorari and writs of habeas corpus is guaranteed in their constitution.

Sources

  • Breyer, Stephen. “Administrative Law & Regulatory Policy.” Aspen Publishing, March 2022, ISBN-10: ‎1543825826.
  • Levin, Ronald. “Administrative Law and Process in a Nutshell.” West Academic Publishing, December 30, 2016, ISBN-10: ‎1628103558.
  • Hall, Daniel. “Administrative Law: Bureaucracy in a Democracy.” Pearson, January 22, 2019, ISBN-10: ‎0135186323.
  • Jeffrey S. Lubbers, Jeffrey S. “A Guide to Federal Agency Rulemaking.” ‎ American Bar Association; 6th edition, December 7, 2019, ISBN-10: ‎164105316X.
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Longley, Robert. "What Is Administrative Law? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Nov. 29, 2022, thoughtco.com/administrative-law-definition-and-examples-6822925. Longley, Robert. (2022, November 29). What Is Administrative Law? Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/administrative-law-definition-and-examples-6822925 Longley, Robert. "What Is Administrative Law? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/administrative-law-definition-and-examples-6822925 (accessed February 9, 2023).