Discretionary Powers


Discretionary powers exercised by administrative and legal authorities are permissive, and not binding.  These powers are granted to these officials by statute or delegation.  Discretionary powers do not impose an obligation on a decision-maker to exercise them or to exercise them in a particular manner.

Administrative agencies must exercise discretionary powers in accordance to legal requirements.  Discretionary power must be used reasonably, impartially and avoiding oppression or unnecessary injury.

Generally, administrative agencies are given broad discretion to exercise their administrative authority.  Generally, statutes expressly confer right to exercise discretionary power to administrative agencies.  However, administrative agencies’ duties necessarily include the right to exercise discretion.  Reason for granting discretionary power to administrative agencies is because they possess experience and specialization in a particular area.  This experience and specialization helps agencies in making decisions in the agencies’ area of expertise.

Administrative agencies are provided with discretionary power to ascertain place and time to hear and decide matters that come before it.  Agencies have the power to prosecute or enforce matters through civil or criminal process.

Administrative law judges have discretion to abstain from participating in a legal proceeding due to a conflict of interest of the adjudicator[i].  Abuse of the discretionary power can be alleged only to reverse a decision and not to allow it.  In addition to that, an adjudicator has power to decide whether or not to impose a sanction[ii].

In Mobil Oil Exploration & Producing Southeast v. United Distrib. Cos., 498 U.S. 211 (U.S. 1991), the US Supreme Court stated that an administrative agency enjoys wide discretion in ascertaining best way to handle related, yet discrete issues in terms of procedures and priorities.  Administrative agencies exercise wide discretion in selecting the methods to attain the legislature’s goals.  Administrative agencies can adopt rules and policies to carry out duties delegated by legislature.  The rules and policies should be consistent with statutory provisions.  This discretion is allowed to administrative agencies to adapt their rules and policies to the demands of changing circumstances.  Administrative agencies’ discretionary power extends to deciding remedies for infringement of agency policies.  Administrative agencies have specialized knowledge and power to achieve legislature’s objectives.  Hence, the agencies have discretion to develop appropriate enforcement policy to attain statutory obligations.  Administrative agencies can also decide on appropriation of funds available, efficiently and economically to accomplish its policies.

[i] Haddad v. Gonzalez, 410 Mass. 855 (Mass. 1991)

[ii] Stephenson v. Furnas Elec. Co., 522 N.W.2d 828 (Iowa 1994)