Administrative Law and Procedure
Judicial Review Of Agency Actions
When someone believes that she or he has been the victim of administrative error or wrongdoing and seeks to have the actions of the responsible agency reviewed in a court of law, the reviewing court is faced with two questions: Does the court have a right to review the agency action? And if it does, what is the scope of that court's review?
The Right to Have a Court Review an Agency's Decision Whether someone has the right to ask a court to review the action taken by an agency depends on the answers to several questions. The first question is whether the person bringing the action has standing, or the legal right to bring the suit. Section 702 of the Administrative Procedure Act allows court review for any person who is adversely affected or aggrieved by agency action within the meaning of a relevant statute. When the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed section 702 in Association of Data Processing Service Organizations v. Camp, 397 U.S. 150, 90 S. Ct. 827, 25 L. Ed. 2d 184 (1970), the Court said that for the plaintiff to have standing to seek judicial review of administrative action, two questions must be answered affirmatively: (1) Has the complainant alleged an "injury in fact"?; and (2) Is the interest that the complainant seeks to protect "arguably within the zone of interests to be protected or regulated by the statute or constitutional guarantee in question"?
Even though an agency's decision is reviewable and the plaintiff has standing to litigate, the plaintiff still may be unable to obtain judicial review if he or she has brought the action at the wrong time. The aggrieved person must exhaust all other avenues of relief before the dispute is ripe for judicial determination. The doctrines of EXHAUSTION OF REMEDIES and RIPENESS require a person who deals with an agency to follow patiently all of the available steps within the agency's procedures before resorting to court action. These rules are essential to prevent overloading the courts with questions that might not even be disputes by the time the agencies determine what their final orders or rulings will be.
The Scope of a Court's Review If an aggrieved party can convince a court that he or she has standing, that all available administrative remedies have been exhausted, and that the case is ripe for judicial review, the court will hear the case, but the scope of its review is limited. The law seeks to give agencies enough freedom of action to do their work, while ensuring that individual rights will be protected. The Administrative Procedure Act provides that courts may not second-guess agencies when the agencies are exercising discretion that has been granted to them by statute. A court is generally limited to asking whether the agency went outside the authority granted to it; whether it followed proper procedures in reaching its decision; and whether the decision is so clearly wrong that it must be set aside. The court also may set aside an agency decision that is clearly wrong.
The court usually will accept the agency's findings of fact, but it is free to determine how the law will be applied to those facts. It will look at the whole record of the administrative proceeding and will take into account the agency's expertise in the matter. The court will not upset agency decisions for harmless errors that do not change the outcome of the case. If the question at issue has been committed to agency discretion, the court may consider whether the agency has exercised its discretion. If the agency has not done so, then the court may order the agency to look at the situation and make a decision. The Administrative Procedure Act allows courts to overrule an agency action that is found to be "arbitrary, capricious, an ABUSE OF DISCRETION, or otherwise not in accordance with law."
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