What is administrative law?

Administrative law is law made by or about the executive branch agencies, departments, the President (at the federal level) or the governor (at the state level). Here are a few examples of federal agencies and departments that make administrative law:

  • the Environmental Protection Agency;

  • the Federal Communications Commission;
  • the Securities and Exchange Commission; and
  • the Department of Homeland Security.

At the federal level, executive branch agencies get their authority to make law when Congress delegates such authority to them in statutes. Statutes that authorize agencies to make law are called authority statutes. Most agencies with statutory authority to make laws engage in two types of lawmaking activity:

  • "quasi-legislative: or rule-making activity - called regulations and look like statutes;
  • "quasi-judicial" or decision-making authority - called decisions and look like case law.

Regulations
The major difference between statutes and regulations is that statutes are made by the legislature, while regulations are made by agencies and departments of the executive branch acting under statutory authority. Another difference is that authority statutes tend to be less detailed than regulations. They create a broad legal framework and call upon an agency to fill in the details. Both statutes and regulations have the force of law. Because regulations tend to be more specific than the statutes that authorize them, you might think it is sufficient to find and read just the regulations. In reality, it is extremely important to find and read both the relevant statutes and the relevant regulations. If the agency that made the regulations exceeded the scope of its statutory authority in making them, the regulations will be invalid. You can only judge the validity of regulations by reading them with the statutes that authorized them.

Regulations are published in two official sources. The firs source in which federal regulations appear is a daily periodical called the Federal Register. Regulations are published in the Federal Register as they become final, so they are arranged chronologically. The second official source of federal regulations is an annual publication called the Code of Federal Regulations (C.F.R.), in which the regulations are arranged by subject. The process of compiling the regulations into a subject arrangement is called codification. Altogether, there are 50 numbered titles in the C.F.R., each representing one broad topical area of federal regulation.

Decisions
In addition to making regulations, most federal agencies also issue decisions. The need to issue decision arises from agencies' enforcement duties, such as fines for violations of their regulations. To do so they must first determine whether the regulations have actually been violated. This may involve holding a hearing, and usually involves issuing a written decision that interprets the regulations. Unlike federal regulations, federal administrative decisions are not all published in the same official sources. Most agencies publish their own reporters, and many of these reporters are seriously out of date. Furthermore, few libraries carry reporters from every agency.

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