Administrative Law Explained

You learned in school that Congress makes the laws, but that’s not always the case. In order to be able to navigate the legal system, you need to understand administrative law.

What is administrative law?

Administrative law is the rules and regulations created by government agencies. When Congress or state legislatures pass laws, they often have gaps that need to be filled in.

While some laws are left to common law interpretations, many laws authorize a specific government agency to create rules to further define the law as well as relevant procedures.

Often, administrative law is used for highly complex issues. The legislature defines the big picture goals and then leaves the experts in a specialized agency to exercise the legislative intent of the law.

What are examples of administrative law?

One of the most common examples of administrative law is tax law. Many of the tax rules and regulations that you know aren’t actually in the law.

For example, Congress might pass a law that has a general tax deduction like business deductions. The IRS then creates rules that say exactly what counts as a qualifying business expense that you can deduct. It also creates rules about what supporting information you need to provide.

Other examples of administrative law include:

  • Securities and Exchange Commission regulations governing investments
  • Consumer Financial Protection Bureau regulations governing banking
  • Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission rules governing advertising
  • Department of Labor and Equal Opportunity Employment Commission regulations about employment

Is administrative law constitutional?

Administrative law is generally considered constitutional, but it’s a very complicated issue.

If you’re arguing that government agencies can never make rules that aren’t specifically defined by law, you’re going to lose.

There are limits on what can be covered in administrative law.

The legislature can’t give away too much power or allow an administrative agency to cover too broad of an area. For example, Congress couldn’t put the FBI in charge of defining all crimes.

Administrative rules and regulations also need to be under the powers granted to the agency by the legislature. For example, the CFPB can’t make a rule that all savings accounts have to pay 5% interest. Even though it can regulate banks, Congress hasn’t given it the authority to regulate interest rates.

There are thousands of court cases covering when administrative law is and isn’t valid. If you want to challenge administrative laws, you probably need to hire a lawyer.

How do you appeal decisions by administrative agencies?

When regulatory agencies make decisions, there are multiple levels of appeal. Appeals are defined both by the administrative procedure of the administrative agency and the general laws.

The usual process is something like this:

  1. You go to an agency to apply for benefits, a license, or some other action. Or, the agency audits or investigates you for something.
  2. An employee of the agency makes a decision.
  3. You can informally ask that person or their manager to reconsider.
  4. You can file an appeal to a higher level in that agency.
  5. You can further appeal to an administrative law judge who hears cases on that agency’s issues
  6. If you exhaust your administrative appeals, you can file a lawsuit in court. The lawsuit might ask for a review of the facts, challenge the application of laws or regulations, or say the government agency overstepped its authority. In some cases, you can skip administrative appeals and go directly to court.
  7. If you lose in the trial court, you can work your way up the appeals courts.

Do you need a lawyer for administrative law issues?

Whether you need a lawyer depends on what situation you’re in.

Many issues, like basic tax audits, are easy to resolve with only one or two levels of appeal. You may only need to provide documents and write a brief explanation. You may not need a lawyer for that.

Other issues, like Social Security Disability, can be very complicated with a lot at stake. Since the majority of claims are denied, often on technicalities, many people prefer to get help from a lawyer.

In general, you’ll want to consider the cost or benefit that’s at stake compared to the cost of hiring a lawyer. If you’re not sure, you may want to ask a few lawyers for a consultation.

What kind of lawyer do you need for administrative law issues?

Since administrative law covers many different types of issues, you’re usually not looking for an administrative law lawyer. You’re looking for a tax lawyer, Social Security lawyer, or some other type of lawyer that handles your specific issue.

When you contact a lawyer, ask if they handle your type of case. If they don’t, they’ll usually tell you what type of lawyer you need and where you can find one.

What should you do if you can’t afford a lawyer?

If you can’t afford a lawyer, you may be eligible for free legal services.

There might be a Legal Aid organization or similar not-for-profit legal service that handles that issue. Some law schools also provide free legal services to train their students.

Administrative agencies may also publish legal information or have people that answer basic questions. While they can’t give you specific legal advice, they can help you understand the process you need to follow if you decide to represent yourself.