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Administrative courts are judicial bodies that adjudicate cases involving disputes that arise under administrative law—that is to say, disputes over the government’s exercise of its public authority. Administrative law regulates the exercise of authority by executive officials (administrative acts); it also lays out the correctives or remedies when public officials violate those rules. Administrative courts are distinct from general courts as they focus solely on these types of public law disputes, whereas general courts may deal with both private law disputes (conflicts between private citizens or private entities) and public law controversies. Administrative courts typically play a more prominent role in countries with a history of civil law systems that feature elaborate legal codes (such as France and other countries in continental Europe) than in nations with a common law tradition where many legal principles are taken from prior judicial rulings (such as Great Britain, some other nations in the British Commonwealth, and the United States).
A Clash Of Interests
At the heart of administrative court litigation is a clash involving the private interests of a citizen on one side and the public interest as advanced by organs of the state on the other. Ultimately a country’s decision to have a specialized system of administrative courts is based on a policy decision about the best way to render and ensure justice and fairness in administration. Citizens or corporations unhappy with a governmental agency decision concerning, for example, welfare eligibility, old-age or disability entitlements, immigration status, level of tax liability, the granting of a broadcasting license, or the ability to develop a wetlands area, need a forum for resolving this type of conflict between their private interest and the public entity. Should there be a separate set of courts with specialized jurisdiction only on this type of case, or should general courts with broader jurisdiction and less-specialized judges have this type of private-public dispute fall within their purview?
Separatist Versus Integrationist Orientations
Liberal democracies have settled on two approaches for addressing this foundational question—the separatist and the integrationist. A leading example of the separatist orientation is found in France, which features a well-developed administrative courts arrangement. French administrative courts engage in close judicial oversight of public agency actions. All administrative decisions produced by executive officials may be subject to review by the Conseil d’État (Council of State), which sits at the apex of an administrative court system of lower tribunals and intermediate courts of appeals that adjudicate these public law disputes. This particular court possesses much authority, independence, and prestige in the French legal system, and there is no comparable analogue to it in either Great Britain or the United States. Through its myriad decisions, the Conseil d’État has developed abiding legal precedents and principles concerning administrative power as exercised by the state; its jurisprudence constitutes a viable check to executive power but also lends legitimacy to various state actions.
Proponents of the separatist approach point to these courts’ specialization and expertise in administrative law (and specific administrative areas) as the major advantages over general courts. With the growth of the modern administrative state and regulation of more private sector activities (and the resultant heavier administrative caseload for general courts) these courts are well positioned to manage the caseload and clarify the legal principles shaping the relationship between the individual citizen and the authority of the state bureaucracy. However, critics argue that administrative courts are inherently adverse to long-established views of individual liberty and freedom, primarily because such courts may have a tendency to defer to the state using judicial criteria that favor of the exercise of executive power.
The integrationist model is typically found in Anglo-American countries with their accompanying common law systems. This approach posits that a nation only needs one kind of court to resolve disputes arising from both private and public law— legal rules and principles should be equally applicable to both realms without an artificial distinction between the two. Thus, there is no need for a second set of specialized courts; ordinary courts are completely adequate and proper in rendering administrative justice. Proponents of this approach also contend that having a separate apparatus of administrative courts ineluctably leads to jurisdictional confusion and procedural problems for judges and litigants in trying to determine in which court should litigation be situated. With only one group of courts, such “territorial” problems are not an issue and the judicial structure is helpfully simplified for all involved. Questions revolving around the appropriate scope of administrative discretion resist easy resolution; this uncertainty becomes even more acute when having another set of courts adjudicating administrative disputes. As well, at a more theoretical level, the integrationist model postulates the fundamental notion that both the government and the people should obey the same laws—both components of society must be held accountable to the law by the same set of judges, judicial standards, and legal principles.
In practice, however, countries that have attempted to use just one set of courts to handle all disputes over time have dropped their conceptual purity and begin to use some specialized forms of administrative courts. Caseload burdens and the need for judicial expertise in substantive policy areas often work to increase the number of administrative courts. Whether the ordinary judicial system can accommodate these types of specialized administrative disputes is an important determinant of a state ultimately choosing to have this second structure of courts. A prime example of this is the United States, where several administrative courts in the federal government specifically handle litigation stemming from areas of patents, copyright, customs, and taxes. Most of these courts were created by the U.S. Congress under its powers under Article I of the Constitution, as opposed to the more familiar general federal court system established by Article III that constitute the judicial branch. The judges appointed by the president to these courts do not enjoy the lifetime tenure of Article III federal judges. The decisions of these courts, however, are reviewable on appeal to the Article III courts (i.e., the U.S. Courts of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court).
A derivative form of administrative courts can be found within some U.S. executive branch agencies that have their own internal administrative tribunals (conducted by ostensibly independent administrative law judges) to help more expeditiously resolve disputes over administrative decisions. Judicial review by appeal to an Article III court remains available to disputants after exhausting the appeals process through these administrative tribunals and agency appeal boards.
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- Melnick, R. Shep. Regulation and the Courts: The Case of the Clean Air Act. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1983.
- Rabkin, Jeremy. Judicial Compulsions: How Public Law Distorts Public Policy. New York: Basic Books, 1989.
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- Warren, Kenneth F. Administrative Law in the Political System, 4th ed. Boulder, Colo.:Westview, 2004.
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