A plurality of administrative adjudications involve Social Security disability claims. But there is extensive variety among the several hundred agencies and programs involved in administrative adjudication. Some agencies, such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, engage in licensing. Others, such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Trade Commission, impose penalties for legal noncompliance. Numerous adjudication schemes across multiple agencies involve disputes about government payments, the awarding and administration of government contracts and benefits, and the imposition of employee discipline. A database created by Stanford Law School and the Administrative Conference of the United States numbers these programs and the agencies involved in the hundreds.
The public is, for the most part, quite oblivious to much of this activity’s scope and importance, much less the Trump administration’s attacks on its integrity. What is at stake is not the specific resolution of individual disputes—at least not thus far—but rather the authority to dictate the general rules by which agencies decide individual cases, cases in which accuracy and impartiality are key values.
Administrative adjudication is essential to the effective implementation of federal law. For some agencies, adjudication is a necessary component of policy making, because the statutes they enforce are extremely general and sweeping; specificity gets fleshed out on a case-by-case basis. Indeed, prior to the 1960s, administrative adjudication was more prevalent than issuing general regulations as a policy-making vehicle. For example, the National Labor Relations Board is charged with combatting “unfair labor practices.” It gives that standard meaning by bringing cases against individual employers who engage in activity the NLRB suspects is unlawful. These matters are tried before officials called administrative-law judges, or ALJs, whose decisions are reviewable first by the five members of the NLRB and then, if appealed, by a federal court. Lawyers working on subsequent labor disputes can consult the administrative orders that emanate from these adjudicative proceedings, just as they would read court decisions, to find out how the NLRB interprets the law. This is, likewise, how the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) pursues “unfair or deceptive trade practices,” and how the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) prosecutes a variety of offenses under the federal Securities Act.
Congress also empowers a wide variety of administrative judges to be the first-line decision makers regarding individual applicants for all sorts of government benefits. The largest group comprises the ALJs who work for the Social Security Administration. Other agencies use different categories of administrative judges to approve applications under programs as diverse as veterans benefits, patents, and refugee asylum. ALJs enjoy a number of statutory protections intended to depoliticize their service and to protect, within bounds, the independence of their judgment. Other agency adjudicators with different titles almost always enjoy less protection for their decision-making independence, based on their agencies’ governing statutes.