ADMINISTRATIVE JUSTICE, or, more commonly, administrative adjudication, is the exercise by an administrative agency of judicial powers delegated to the agency by a legislative body. Agencies typically possess both legislative and judicial powers in their area of authority. The legislative power gives the agency the authority to issue regulations, and the judicial power gives the agency the authority to adjudicate contested cases within its area of jurisdiction. This article focuses on the latter power.
The current distinction between adjudication within administrative agencies and adjudication in courts of law was not made historically. For example, the English Court of Exchequer evolved from the administrative Exchequer, a tax-assessing and collecting agency. American usage derives from the separation of powers in the U.S. Constitution and from its limitation of the "judicial power of the United States" to certain types of "cases … and controversies." Administrative adjudication was once criticized as being contrary to the reservation of judicial power to courts as set down in Article III of the Constitution. The Supreme Court held in Crowell v. Benson (1932), however, that agencies could adjudicate cases as long as provision was made for ultimate judicial review.
Administrative courts are not ordinarily engaged in determining the rights and duties of individuals as against other individuals. Rather, they typically deal with individuals in relation to government in terms of benefits sought or disabilities incurred from government action. It is this function that chiefly distinguishes administrative tribunals from civil courts. In contrast to the criminal courts, administrative tribunals are typically empowered to assess various penalties, such as forfeiture of licenses for the violation of a statutory or administrative regulation. Some administrative agencies, however, are not vested with adjudicative powers and must proceed through the regular courts for civil or criminal punishment of violations.
Another fundamental difference between administrative tribunals and courts is the nature of subject matter jurisdiction. The subject matter of an agency's administrative regulation and adjudication is normally a single economic activity, a set of closely related economic activities, or specific benefits conferred by government. The concern of the National Labor Relations Board with labor relations is an example of the first; the jurisdiction of the Federal Communications Commission over radio, television, and telephone exemplifies the second; and adjudication of the validity of benefit claims by such agencies as the Veterans Administration represent the third. In contrast, the subject matter jurisdiction of courts embraces a broad spectrum of civil and criminal law.
The Administrative Procedure Act of 1946 (APA) imposes uniform procedural requirements on most U.S. agencies and requires the judicial function to be separated from the legislative and executive aspects within the agencies. Some agencies not covered by this act have alternate provisions in their organizational statutes; some have had additional procedural requirements imposed.
The APA specifies the requirements for notification and hearings of agencies under its jurisdiction. When Congress has specified that the administrative adjudication must be formal, the APA requires that the agency's decision be made upon a record established in a trial-type hearing, and that an initial decision be made by the officer who hears the evidence. This hearing examiner, known as an "administrative law judge," makes an initial decision based on reasoned analysis, written findings of fact, and conclusions of law. The initial decision is frequently subject to appeal to intra-agency boards or to the commission or board that is the highest administrative authority of the agency. The act further provides for a broad right of review of agency adjudication by the courts. In general, judicial review of formal agency adjudication is limited to questions of law, and administrative findings of fact are binding on the courts unless unsupported by substantial evidence. Questions of law include allegations that constitutional or statutory rights have been denied, failure to observe required procedures, and the agency's scope of authority. If Congress has not specified that the administrative adjudication must be formal, the APA is silent with regard to the procedures to be used. The requirements in such informal adjudications spring from constitutional requirements of procedural due process and from the right of courts to overturn agency action that is arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or in violation of law.
Administrative regulation and adjudication is not limited to the national governmental level. It has become widespread in the states and municipalities, embracing such subjects as public utilities, natural resources, banking, securities, worker's compensation, unemployment insurance, employment discrimination, rents, automobile operation and inspection, corporations, elections, welfare, commercial insurance, land use, and environmental and consumer protection. Some states have administrative procedure acts comparable to the federal act of 1946; but in the states, judicial review is characteristically broader than under the federal act.
Aman, Alfred C., Jr., and William T. Mayton. Administrative Law. 2d ed. St. Paul, Minn.: West Group, 2001.
Schwartz, Bernard. Administrative Law. 3d ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1991.
See alsoFederal Agencies .