What Is Administrative Law?

Administrative law is the body of legal principles that governs the activities and procedures of governmental agencies. It covers a broad range of substantive topics, including how agencies interpret and implement statutes.


Administrative law seeks to ensure that public bodies act in a way that is reasonable, fair and legal. It does this by establishing accountability mechanisms.

Judicial Review of Agency Decisions

In Administrative law, judicial review is the process by which courts scrutinize agency decisions. A court’s review can be based on a number of factors, including the competence of an agency, the scope and limits of an agency’s legal authority, the fairness of an agency’s procedural methods, and the validity of the agency’s discretionary powers.

To challenge a final agency decision, you must file a petition with the circuit court where you live. The petition should outline why you believe the agency acted in violation of the law and should include any other documents you wish to be considered in your appeal. The court will then set a hearing for you to present your evidence to the judge. The judge will review all of the facts presented to the agency and then make a decision.

In a typical review, the judge will not rewrite the law nor consider new evidence. However, the law is very clear that if the decision of the agency is found to be “arbitrary, capricious or an abuse of discretion,” then it may be invalidated. The legal standard for a finding of “arbitrary, capricious or abusive discretion” requires the court to take a close look at all of the evidence in the record. This is different from a de novo review, which occurs when the court ignores all of the findings of fact made by the agency and takes the case on its own merits.

Administrative Law Judges

A federal agency employs administrative law judges, also known as ALJs, to conduct hearings and make decisions in a wide variety of legal matters. The responsibilities of ALJs include administering oaths, taking testimony from witnesses, and ruling on questions of evidence. The ALJ’s initial decision is based on the entire record of the proceeding and contains both factual findings and legal conclusions. It is usually appealable.

Generally, ALJs work under the authority of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), 5 U.S.C. SS 500 et seq. This act gives the judges substantial judicial independence, which is designed to ensure that a fair process is followed in each case. Unless the APA expressly permits it, an agency cannot interfere with the hearing process by having its attorneys communicate with the ALJ in a nonjudicial capacity or pressure the judge to render a certain result.

Besides the ALJs, OATH has 250 full- and part-time hearing officers who conduct the trials in cases that may lead to sanctions such as fines, monetary damage awards, affirmative relief, vehicle confiscation, license suspension or revocation, and employee termination. A search engine on OATH’s website makes it easy to find a library of ALJ and BALCA decisions and other relevant OATH appellate decisions. This search tool includes state-of-the-art full text search capabilities and faceted navigation similar to that used on many e-commerce sites.

Administrative Agencies

Administrative law is the study of how those parts of our government that are neither legislatures nor courts make their decisions. It involves analyzing how these bodies develop, create and enforce the rules that govern how our day-to-day laws are carried out. It includes examining how the agencies, their members and their processes affect constitutional law.

There are many different kinds of administrative agencies that exist and perform a wide variety of functions. The most common are regulatory agencies, whose primary function is to implement legislative directives by developing more precise and technical rules than are possible in a legislative setting. Examples of regulatory agencies include the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Communications Commission and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The other kind of administrative agency is an adjudicatory body, whose primary function is to hear and decide claims or disputes that come before it. These agencies typically have their own judicial body, called an administrative law judge (ALJ), who is independent from the agency officials involved in the adjudicatory proceedings. The ALJ must be impartial and make his or her decision based on the facts and law presented in the record compiled before him.

A person who is aggrieved by an agency action can seek a judicial review of that action, as provided in the organic statutes of most agencies and in Sections 701-706 of the Administrative Procedure Act. This process of judicial review requires that the court examine whether the agency’s actions are within its statutory authority and are not arbitrary or capricious.

Appellate Courts

Typically, parties who lose a decision in a trial court – whether a jury or bench trial – or before an administrative law judge can appeal the case to a higher appellate court. However, most federal laws require parties to exhaust any appellate remedies available at the agency level before seeking review in a court of appeals. The Supreme Court of Alaska and most state and local courts have similar requirements for appealing decisions made at the trial court or administrative law judge levels.

An appellate court judges cases based on written arguments and does not hold live hearings or involve witness testimony, except in rare circumstances. Most courts of appeals are broken into judicial districts, and the Eighth District consists of the Supreme, County, Family and Surrogate Courts in the 8 counties of Western New York: Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Erie, Genesee, Niagara and Orleans.

Appeals are a critical part of our legal system. Our firm’s Appellate group regularly litigates and advises on cases involving challenging constitutional and statutory limits on government action, as well as the validity of federal and state agencies’ decisions and actions. In addition, our Appellate group closely monitors appellate decisions in other states and the U.S. Supreme Court to keep abreast of the latest in legal developments and trends. Our attorneys can help clients navigate the many procedures for appealing a trial court or an agency decision to a higher level of court.