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Administrative law is staple practice

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- There is a field of law that used to be obscure but is now gaining importance in the lives of farmers and agriculturalists, and that field of law is known by practitioners as "administrative law." In fact, administrative law ...

Peter Welte

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - There is a field of law that used to be obscure but is now gaining importance in the lives of farmers and agriculturalists, and that field of law is known by practitioners as "administrative law." In fact, administrative law has been taught at most accredited law schools for years. But only recently have members of the general public become aware of it.

Administrative law is the mechanism by which most federal agencies are able to function. If you have ever been adverse to a federal agency, you've probably received a "30-day letter," indicating that you are in violation of some rule or regulation of that agency. If you've received that letter, you're actually now in the world of administrative law.

The purpose of administrative law is to level the playing field between the government and private citizens who end up being litigants in a case - usually against the federal government. In administrative law, though, the rules are different from a typical courtroom setting.

For example, in a typical courtroom setting, you have a neutral and detached judge who is making the decisions about a case between two parties.

In administrative law, however, there is a "hearing officer," who is typically provided by the agency themselves. There is no requirement in administrative law for a hearing officer to be completely neutral and detached. In fact, the "rule of necessity" provides that in an administrative law case, the hearing officer can actually rule on the case in spite of any possible conflict of interest, even if they have a financial interest in the pending case, so long as nobody else is available to hear the case.

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Another difference is the "rules of evidence" that apply in a regular court case do not typically apply in an administrative law case. For example, in a regular court case the "hearsay rule" applies, meaning an out-of-court statement made by someone other than the testifying witness is usually not admitted as testimony. So if the witness says "then the crop consultant said 'I think John must have planted illegal seed,'" the judge would not permit that testimony. The judge would instead require that the crop consultant themselves give that testimony. Otherwise it is impermissible hearsay, but in an administrative law case hearsay is often permitted.

Another unique aspect of administrative law is that if you lose the initial hearing, your appeal is usually to another hearing officer supplied by the same agency. In fact, if the federal agency is the U.S. Department of Agriculture, you might actually have multiple appeal hearings to hearing officers who are supplied by the USDA themselves.

(Author's Note: If you've read this far, you're likely glad that you didn't go to law school and instead chose a crop science degree from North Dakota State University. I say this tongue in cheek, since my undergraduate degree is in Agricultural Economics from NDSU. Go Bison!)

You may be wondering why administrative law is gaining in popularity. Well, the fact of the matter is that the court systems, at both the state and federal level, are overwhelmed with filings and cases. So the gist of the idea is that administrative law encourages the two parties to "work it out" in a less formal setting, not unlike small claims court.

If the parties are unable to come to a resolution, the losing party eventually always has the right to appeal the matter to a "regular court," where things get more expensive and time consuming. Regardless, administrative law is here to stay.

Editor's note: Welte is an attorney with the Vogel Law Firm in Grand Forks, N.D., and a small grains farmer in Grand Forks County.

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