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Northern Illinois University
College of Law
David C. Shapiro Memorial Law Library

Basic Legal Research

Introduction to Administrative Law

Administrative law is that body of law generated by governmental agencies (e.g., the E.P.A., I.R.S., F.A.A.).

Agencies are entities created by statute (called an enabling statute) and agencies exist at both the federal and state levels. Once created, agencies publish several types of material. The two main types are regulations/rules (rules that have the force and effect of statutes) and agency decisions.

  • Regulations are promulgated to help the agency fulfill its purpose. The agency's enabling statute gives it the power to establish rules/regulations which are much more detailed than the broad statutes created by the legislature. The grant of authority to administrative agencies is usually narrow in scope, and the regulations they promulgate are targeted to specific groups or actions.
    • For example, federal environmental statutes are very broad in scope and not very detailed. The Environmental Protection Agency is given the task of implementing these statutes. The EPA proposes, and subsequently enacts, regulations that will fill in the details of the statutes. Thus the EPA will set specific air and water pollution standards to achieve the goals set out in the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.
  • Agency decisions are similar to case law, but they are generated by an agency decision-making body rather than by a state or federal court. The binding nature of an administrative decision is somewhat less than that of case law. However, the decisions are binding on the parties and often only persuasive elsewhere. Courts will often defer to the expertise of an agency, but they are not bound by its decision.

When researching administrative law you may need to look at a number of different things:

  • You may need to locate the enabling statute for the agency and look at court decisions interpreting that statute.
  • If a particular rule is at issue, you need to look at the language of the rule as well as check for adjudicative decisions from the agency issuing the rules/regulations.
  • If the research is general in nature - for example, you are looking into regulations potentially affecting a client's business - you want to locate all relevant rules/regulations applicable to the client. You should also look for any adjudicative decisions to help understand the rules.

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