Arbitrary Definition Law

An arbitrary definition law explains decisions made or actions taken that are not necessarily based on established facts, but instead based in large part on opinions. Arbitrary decisions do not reflect accepted legal precedence, nor are they made with regards to existing facts or established circumstances. They are often associated with individuals or forces that operate outside the realm of the law, such as tyrants and autocrats that use accumulated or delegated power to set personal agendas.

In judicial terms, determining whether or not a law or decision is arbitrary most often occurs when a court is asked to render an opinion on the actions of an administrative body of a government agency. Administrative agencies derive their authority through vesting clauses in federal and state constitutions to establish rules and regulations, and issue orders arising from disagreements.

Non-elected officials appointed to find ways to circumvent gridlock and cut through red tape to make the government run more efficiently staff these agencies. However, in their zeal to get things accomplished, they can at times act with disregard for the due process imposed by the law and procedures created by elected legislatures or laws established by the courts.

Judicial Review and Arbitrary Law

The opportunity for courts to review administrative decisions, known as judicial review, is one of the most important rights granted to the judicial branch of government. These cases arise when a business, an individual or, in in the case of a class action suit, a group of individuals asks a court to review a decision which they believe harms them in some way. Judicial review was established by legislatures to protect the rights of citizens from capricious acts by the executive branch, while also providing executive agencies the authority to establish rules and regulations.

In 1948, the U.S. Congress established the scope of the court’s authority to review actions by federal agencies by enacting the Administrative Procedure Act. Among the key elements of this Act:

  • It tasks the court with determining whether a rule or regulation was created arbitrarily without following established procedures and not founded on a reasoned evaluation of relevant factors.
  • The burden falls to the agency to prove that its decision was based on fact and made with regard to established standards.
  • If the court determines the agency acted arbitrarily, it may set aside the agency’s action to avoid injustice.

A key feature of judicial review is the benefit of the doubt the court can afford an agency based upon the expertise of its members on the relevant subject matter and the underlying facts supporting their decision. However, that does not mean that the courts should ignore inconsistencies between the agency’s interpretations of facts and existing legal precedence. The court has the authority to determine how the facts should be applied and depend on the technical application of the governing law.

If a court determines that an agency’s actions were indeed arbitrary it may:

  • Overturn the agency’s decision
  • Remand the case back to the agency with instructions to consider the facts as determined by the court.

“Arbitrary and Capricious” as Applied in Appeals

The “arbitrary and capricious standard” defines an act as occurring with complete disregard for established facts and an overt willingness to abuse the power held by an agency, and is one of the most frequently applied rules for overturning an action by the executive branch of government. There are several examples of this standard being applied in appeal cases:

  • In 2016, a New York State Supreme Court judge ruled that an evaluation of a New York teacher’s performance was based upon an “arbitrary and capricious” evaluation system developed by then New York State Education Commissioner John King, and implemented by the New York State Education Department.
  • In 2017, the US District Court for the District of Rhode Island applied the “arbitrary and capricious” standard in a case where Emhart Industries successfully defended itself against an Environmental Protection Agency order relying upon the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as Superfund.

The Administrative Procedure Act and its establishment of “arbitrary and capricious” as a standard for judicial review serves as an excellent example of the concept of checks and balances established by the US Constitution.

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