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Judicial Decisions and the Impact on Public Administration

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Andrew Vaz
February 6, 2015

consumer-courtsEssentially, what are the courts? Well, by the drop of a gavel, a person could face the serious repercussions of our laws and policies. Our court system is afforded the power to change and implement laws, which by its process, has a profound impact on public administration. Hence, the judicial branch of the government has played a huge role in the formation of public policy. It is not inconsiderate to observe the relationship between the courts and public administrators.

In the last few years, the most significant ruling by the Supreme Court that affected how administrators developed policy was the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT). It was the United States Military policy that not only discriminated against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, but it outlined the troubled relationship between the U.S. military and the LGBT community. Enacted in 1993 under the Clinton administration, DADT restricted service members from revealing their sexual orientation. It also banned openly gay applicants from serving in the military. The military’s use of ‘discretion’ is what seems to be central to their job security. The Supreme Court ruled against the legislation and repealed it, which allowed members of the military to serve openly without fear of discrimination.

Another Supreme Court decision that has been significant toward public administration is the affordable health act ruling. The court’s ruling was the most significant federalism decision since the New Deal and the most closely watched case since Bush v. Gore in 2000. It was a crucial milestone for the law, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, allowing almost all — and perhaps, in the end, all — of its far-reaching changes to roll forward.

However, the court made restrictions, the most significant was Medicaid. The court substantially limited the law’s expansion of Medicaid, the joint federal-state program that provides health care to poor and disabled people. Seven justices agreed that Congress had exceeded its constitutional authority by coercing states into participation by threatening them with the loss of existing federal payments.

How the Courts Control Public Administration 

It is an idea that is never really considered: how the courts in their capacity are able to control the process of public administration? The question is not whether the courts can control public administration (the courts actually do), but rather how it does control it.

Even where courts have intervened in the administrative process over the last 40 years, the impact was not universally viewed as constructive or positive. Those who were subject to the delays and burdens of court review would have been quite pleased to have eliminated the requirements of hearings, written opinions, evidence in the record and procedural due

process not to mention the second-guessing on the merits that sometimes occurred. However, until recently, many areas, such as prisons, were regarded by the courts as involving “mere housekeeping” matters and remained largely untouched by judicial review.

The capacity of citizens to submit administrative activities to judicial control is seen as a foundation of the rule of law but also as an instrument to improve the functioning of the administration and to ensure good governance. Nevertheless, the scope and intensity of judicial review of actions by the administration differs among the legal systems, ranging from a formal legality control to the review of the substantive content of the administrative act. As a result, the court could take either a “judicial review” function or an “enforcement” function, replacing the decision of the administrative authority with its own evaluation.

The Courts versus Public Administration 

In the article “Public Administration and the Courts, a clash of values,” Diana Woodhouse suggested that the radical reform of the civil service has coincided with a period of judicial activism. This article examined the role of the courts in public administration and the effect of a more interventionist judiciary upon public administration. She argued that while the principles upheld by the courts have much in common with the traditional model of public administration, they may not accord with those associated with the drive for efficiency, measured in terms of value for money. Woodhouse concluded that now, more than ever, both administrators and judges would benefit from a Code of Administrative Practice.


When looking that the different legal actions taken by the courts, the decisions handed down has had a profound impact into the process of public administration.

Author: Andrew R Vaz, M.S., M.P.A. is a doctoral student in public policy and administration program at Walden University. He is a graduate of the Master of Science in Criminal Justice and Master of Public Administration double master’s program at Florida International University. He can be reached at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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