The Politics of Administrative Law Judge Decision Making at the Environmental Protection Agency in Civil Penalty Cases

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Regulation of the environment is often characterized as a polarizing issue that pits public health against economic growth. Although researchers have examined the decisions of federal district court judges in environmental civil penalty cases and examined the decision making of administrative law judges (ALJ), there has been no research which has examined factors that influence ALJ decision making in environmental civil penalty cases at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). I theorize that ALJ decisions, like federal district court judge decisions, are a function of personal policy preferences, hierarchical controls by higher courts, separation of powers influences, and case and defendant characteristics. Results demonstrate that the size of civil penalties issued by ALJs at the EPA is influenced by personal policy preferences, political constraints via Congress, hierarchical control by the Environmental Appeals Board (EAB) and the Supreme Court, litigant characteristics, and case characteristics. Overall, EPA ALJs seem to put more emphasis on their role as judge than their role as bureaucrat. The influence of attitudes raises normative concerns regarding the level of independence that is provided to ALJs as the weighing of public health versus economic growth seems to be based in personal policy preferences rather than technical expertise.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)114-140
Number of pages27
JournalAmerican Politics Research
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2014
Externally publishedYes



  • administrative law
  • administrative law judge
  • bureaucracy
  • environmental protection agency
  • judicial decision making

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science

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