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5.3: The Administrative Procedure Act

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    Learning Objectives
    1. Understand how hearings are conducted under the act.
    2. Understand how the act affects rulemaking by agencies.

    In 1946, Congress enacted the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). This fundamental statute detailed for all federal administrative agencies how they must function when they are deciding cases or issuing regulations, the two basic tasks of administration. At the state level, the Model State Administrative Procedure Act, issued in 1946 and revised in 1961, has been adopted in twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia; three states have adopted the 1981 revision. The other states have statutes that resemble the model state act to some degree.

    Trial-Type Hearings

    Deciding cases is a major task of many agencies. For example, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is empowered to charge a company with having violated the Federal Trade Commission Act. Perhaps a seller is accused of making deceptive claims in its advertising. Proceeding in a manner similar to a court, staff counsel will prepare a case against the company, which can defend itself through its lawyers. The case is tried before an administrative law judge (ALJ), formerly known as an administrative hearing examiner. The change in nomenclature was made in 1972 to enhance the prestige of ALJs and more accurately reflect their duties. Although not appointed for life as federal judges are, the ALJ must be free of assignments inconsistent with the judicial function and is not subject to supervision by anyone in the agency who carries on an investigative or prosecutorial function.

    The accused parties are entitled to receive notice of the issues to be raised, to present evidence, to argue, to cross-examine, and to appear with their lawyers. Ex parte (eks PAR-tay) communications—contacts between the ALJ and outsiders or one party when both parties are not present—are prohibited. However, the usual burden-of-proof standard followed in a civil proceeding in court does not apply: the ALJ is not bound to decide in favor of that party producing the more persuasive evidence. The rule in most administrative proceedings is “substantial evidence,” evidence that is not flimsy or weak, but is not necessarily overwhelming evidence, either. The ALJ in most cases will write an opinion. That opinion is not the decision of the agency, which can be made only by the commissioners or agency head. In effect, the ALJ’s opinion is appealed to the commission itself.

    Certain types of agency actions that have a direct impact on individuals need not be filtered through a full-scale hearing. Safety and quality inspections (grading of food, inspection of airplanes) can be made on the spot by skilled inspectors. Certain licenses can be administered through tests without a hearing (a test for a driver’s license), and some decisions can be made by election of those affected (labor union elections).


    Trial-type hearings generally impose on particular parties liabilities based on past or present facts. Because these cases will serve as precedents, they are a partial guide to future conduct by others. But they do not directly apply to nonparties, who may argue in a subsequent case that their conduct does not fit within the holding announced in the case. Agencies can affect future conduct far more directly by announcing rules that apply to all who come within the agency’s jurisdiction.

    The acts creating most of the major federal agencies expressly grant them authority to engage in rulemaking. This means, in essence, authority to legislate. The outpouring of federal regulations has been immense. The APA directs agencies about to engage in rulemaking to give notice in the Federal Register of their intent to do so. The Federal Register is published daily, Monday through Friday, in Washington, DC, and contains notice of various actions, including announcements of proposed rulemaking and regulations as adopted. The notice must specify the time, place, and nature of the rulemaking and offer a description of the proposed rule or the issues involved. Any interested person or organization is entitled to participate by submitting written “data, views or arguments.” Agencies are not legally required to air debate over proposed rules, though they often do so.

    The procedure just described is known as “informal” rulemaking. A different procedure is required for “formal” rulemaking, defined as those instances in which the enabling legislation directs an agency to make rules “on the record after opportunity for an agency hearing.” When engaging in formal rulemaking, agencies must hold an adversary hearing.

    Administrative regulations are not legally binding unless they are published. Agencies must publish in the Federal Register the text of final regulations, which ordinarily do not become effective until thirty days later. Every year the annual output of regulations is collected and reprinted in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), a multivolume paperback series containing all federal rules and regulations keyed to the fifty titles of the US Code (the compilation of all federal statutes enacted by Congress and grouped according to subject).

    Key Takeaway

    Agencies make rules that have the same effect as laws passed by Congress and the president. But such rules (regulations) must allow for full participation by interested parties. The Administrative Procedure Act (APA) governs both rulemaking and the agency enforcement of regulations, and it provides a process for fair hearings.

    Exercises \(\PageIndex{1}\)
    1. Go to Browse the site. Find a topic that interests you, and then find a proposed regulation. Notice how comments on the proposed rule are invited.
    1. Why would there be a trial by an administrative agency? Describe the process.

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