Public Administrative Bodies

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Agencies endowed with governmental functions.

Public administrative agencies are created by statute and only the legislature has the authority to provide for their creation. The statutory provisions that create the administrative agencies and confer functions on them determine the character of the agencies. In general, agencies represent the people and act as guardians of the public interest, not the interests of private persons. As an incident to the performance of their public functions, however, agencies can decide issues between private parties or private rights.

Administrative agencies are extensions of the legislative branch of the government and can perform acts of a legislative or quasi-legislative nature. Agencies can also be part of the executive branch of government and can be empowered to deal with matters within the scope of executive power.

Administrative agencies are continuing organizations, unaffected by changes in personnel. Ordinarily final actions of administrative officers or bodies within the scope of their authority are binding on their successors.

All persons are equally eligible to hold an administrative office unless they are excluded by some constitutional or statutory disqualification. The legislature usually establishes the qualifications of those who are to hold administrative offices. The qualifications must be reasonable in light of the functions and duties of the office. The tenure and term of administrative officers are indicated in the statute. Generally an official is entitled, and sometimes required, to hold office until a qualified successor is chosen. The power to remove an official is derived from the sovereign power of the state and is indispensable in obtaining good administration of public activities. An officer should be removed only according to law. If the office is held at the pleasure of the appointing agency, the incumbent can be removed without notice or hearing.

Generally when authority is conferred on an administrative body composed of three or more members, the authority can be exercised by less than all the members, provided all had notice of the meeting and an opportunity to attend. Membership on an administrative board ordinarily includes the right to vote, and statutory provisions governing the method of voting should be observed. The number of members for effective action is usually fixed by statute, and action by a quorum is necessary. Unless provided by statute, the authority cannot be exercised by a solitary member, or less than a majority. A statutory requirement that a quorum be present is a jurisdictional one that cannot be waived; the action of less than a quorum is void in such a case.

In the interest of orderly procedure and certainty, administrative bodies keep minutes or written records of all proceedings and actions. Administrative agencies speak through their records, and the minutes must be truthful, clear, and precise. In contested cases when an administrative agency acts in a quasi-judicial capacity, the record should contain a summary of the facts and circumstances presented and the reasons for any administrative actions.

Administrative bodies have an inherent right to amend their records. When records are incorrect, they can be changed to reflect the truth. Typographical or clerical errors can be corrected at any time.

Records should be open for inspection by persons who have some real or proper interest in them, such as the parties to a proceeding. When the records are made public, no particular reason has to be demonstrated for inspecting them, since such records can be examined out of mere curiosity. The right of inspection, however, is subject to reasonable regulation.

Liability for the expenses of an administrative agency is usually regulated by statute. The legislature can also grant the agency the exclusive power to fix the fees for expenses incurred in the performance of its duties.

Administrative officers and agencies have no common law or inherent jurisdiction of powers. Custom or usage cannot invest administrative officers, agencies, or bodies with authority. Their powers are wholly derived from, and limited by, the constitution, a statute, or some other legislative enactment. In addition to the express powers, the officials and agencies have whatever implied powers are reasonably necessary to effectuate the express powers and duties.

An administrative agency that originally acquires jurisdiction over a particular matter ordinarily has exclusive jurisdiction as against an agency with concurrent jurisdiction, and no coordinate body has any right to interfere. An administrative body, however, can perform its duties in matters over which it has exclusive jurisdiction in cooperation with other public bodies and officials.

When the power and jurisdiction of federal and state agencies conflict or overlap, the federal authority is supreme and will prevail. Where Congress has preempted a particular field and has granted exclusive power over it to a federal agency, the power of a state is suspended, and a state agency has no jurisdiction, even when the particular matter sought to be administered by the state agency has not been addressed by the federal agency. The mere enactment of a federal statute authorizing a federal agency to act in a certain field does not preclude a state from enacting a statute on the same general subject and creating a state agency for its enforcement. When Congress in enacting a statute has not preempted an area, a state board or official, acting under a state statute, can assume jurisdiction and act.

As a general rule, administrative agencies or officers are not civilly liable for the consequences of their acts, when acting in good faith within the scope of proper authority. An officer is not responsible for damages if he makes a mistake of fact in exercising discretion or an error in ascertaining and deciding on the facts of a case, or if the law is misconstrued or misapplied.

Similarly, an administrative officer is not liable for the wrongful acts or omissions of subordinates, unless she directed, authorized, or cooperated in them. Liability results, however, when damages occur as a result of an official acting outside her scope of jurisdiction and without legal authorization.

When exercising their powers, administrative agencies must keep within the scope of the powers granted to them. They are powerless to act contrary to the provisions of the law, and they must follow the standards established by statute. They cannot ignore or transgress the statutory limitations on their power, even to accomplish what they believe to be worthwhile goals. Acts or orders that do not fall within the powers granted are wrong and void.

Persons whose rights are affected by administrative action are entitled to an impartial action free from bias, prejudice, or personal interest. When an individual or a group claims that an administrative act adversely affects a right, a presumption exists in favor of the legality and regularity of official acts of administrative officers and agencies. It is presumed that they act within the limits of the authority conferred on them and that facts exist that justify the administrative action.

Investigations by administrative agencies or officials are informal proceedings to obtain information to govern future action. They are not proceedings in which action is taken against anyone. An administrative investigation is comparable to a grand jury investigation where witnesses are compelled to appear and testify.

An administrative body can be required to make certain investigations, such as when a public service commission is required to investigate the activities of a public utility. A board might also be authorized to exercise its discretion in determining when an investigation is to be made.

The form of the investigation usually depends on the nature of the question to be decided and the type of data that is needed. Investigations are ordinarily held in private, and they must be conducted so that harmful publicity will not result or influence the final outcome. In the course of its investigation, a board can review official documents and can supplement this means of inquiry by private correspondence and by conducting personal research.

Investigations by administrative agencies or officials have no parties as found in a lawsuit or criminal prosecution, and usually, there is no need to give notice of the investigation. An administrative body or official can issue a subpoena requiring a witness to appear and to testify at an investigation. In addition, a subpoena can be issued for the production of all books, papers, or other documents that are relevant to the inquiry. The subpoena is void when it does not indicate that the evidence to be produced is germane to the inquiry. A person must respond to a subpoena to the best of his ability. Compliance with a subpoena is enforceable by a court order. Although hearings can be held, as a general rule, a hearing is not an integral part of an investigation by an administrative body or official.

An administrative body or official is not bound to conduct an investigation under the strict rules of evidence required for courts, but particular evidence, such as hearsay evidence, has been held to be inadmissible. Witnesses can be called in an investigative proceeding and their testimony can be taken, subject to cross-examination. Witnesses can even be entitled to the presence and advice of counsel. The costs and expenses of an investigation can be assessed against the particular persons or corporations involved, particularly if the complaining party receives an adverse decision.

Public administrative bodies promulgate rules and regulations. Their authority to do so and the guidelines under which the agencies perform these duties are governed by administrative law and administrative procedure.

further readings

Box, Richard C. 2004. Public Administration and Society: Critical Issues in American Governance. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe.

Fitzgerald, Randall, and Gerald Lipson. 1984. Porkbarrel: The Unexpurgated Grace Commission Story of Congressional Profligacy. Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute.

Osborne, David, and Ted A. Gaebler. 2000. Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit Is Transforming the Public Sector. Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus.

Pinkerton, James P. 1995. What Comes Next?: The End of Big Government—and the New Paradigm Ahead. New York: Hyperion.


Administrative Agency; Administrative Law and Procedure; Agency; Good Faith; Usage.