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Subject Matter Jurisdiction[index]

The key question on appeal was whether the district court had jurisdiction to hear Professor Abbs's complaint. The court's jurisdiction is determined by the APA, the federal law that establishes the general framework for federal agency practices and procedures. All scientists and engineers who receive federal grants or contracts will find their professional lives increasingly regulated by the APA. Since most of the Executive branch of the federal government is composed of APA-regulated agencies (the only major exceptions are the Justice Department and the military), the Abbs opinion has a greater reach than just the narrow concerns of the OSI.

Section 10(c) of the APA confines federal court jurisdiction for review of federal agency orders of the type made by the OSI to "final agency action for which there is no other adequate remedy in a court." Judge Posner pointed out, "Ordinarily that means a final order imposing some sort of sanction. It emphatically does not mean the issuance of the administrative complaint, kicking off the administrative proceeding."

Basically, the U.S. legal system views the issuance of an administrative complaint as an inconvenience to be borne by those who place themselves under the authority of the administrative agency. In a democratic republic, there is an assumption that administrative personnel will exercise reasonable care before issuing complaints.

Thus, the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that a challenge to administrative action, falls outside the grant of federal court jurisdiction in section 10(c) of the APA when the only harm the challenger seeks to avert is the inconvenience of having to go through the administrative process before obtaining a declaration of his legal rights. The Court stated that such a complaint has "no legal force or practical effect ... other than the disruptions that accompany any major litigation." FTC v. Standard Oil Co. 449 U.S. 232, 243 (1980). These disruptions are simply insufficient to make the usual remedy--judicial review of the sanction when and if it is imposed--inadequate.

The alternative would be to ask the courts to scrutinize every administrative complaint as it is issued. Or before: When Professor Abbs filed suit, the OSI investigation of him hadn't even reached the complaint stage. It is unfortunate that false accusations are sometimes made, but the fact is that there is no way to distinguish the innocent from the guilty without a hearing on the facts. Numerous innocent individuals accused of crimes have had to undergo enormous inconvenience, expense and terror to exonerate themselves. On the other hand, if an individual doesn't want to risk the inconvenience of a research misconduct complaint, s/he can avoid that inconvenience altogether by not accepting federal research funds. By accepting the benefits of such funding, one also accepts the responsibilities that go with it.

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