Legislative vs. Quasi-judicial decisions

Almost all planning and zoning decisions made by local zoning boards, commissions, and elected officials fall into one of two categories: legislative decisions or quasi-judicial decisions. The basic difference between the two categories is that legislative decisions establish policies for future application, while quasi-judicial, or administrative decisions are the application of those policies. Examples of legislative decisions – those that establish policies – include the:

  • adoption of plans
  • adoption of ordinances (or amendments to ordinances)
  • passing budgets

All legislative decisions are made by the local government’s elected body, but not every decision made by the elected body is a legislative decision.

Examples of quasi-judicial decisions – those that apply previously-established policies – include decisions on:

  • variances
  • special exceptions
  • subdivision plats
  • zoning code violations
  • site plan review

The decisions of a board of adjustment, and many decisions of a planning commission are quasi-judicial decisions. One court has described quasi-judicial decisions in this way:

1. The action occurs in response to a landowner application followed by a statutorily mandated public hearing;

2. as a result of the application, readily identifiable proponents and opponents weigh in on the process; and

3. the decision is localized in its application affecting a particular group of citizens more acutely than the public at large

The distinction between legislative and quasi-judicial decision-making in zoning practice is an important one. In quasi-judicial proceedings the decision-making body must follow stricter procedural requirements (The term “quasi-judicial” literally means court-like; implying that proceedings must be similar to those followed in court proceedings). If the requirements are not followed, the decision could be invalidated by a court if it is challenged. Quasi-judicial proceedings must follow basic standards of due process, including:

  • Proper notice of the hearing
  • Providing everyone with an interest in the proceedings an opportunity to be heard and to hear what others have to say
  • Full disclosure to everyone of the facts being considered by the decision-making body (i.e., no ex parte contacts)
  • An impartial decision-maker free from bias and conflicts of interest
  • Decisions based on the facts of the case, not on political pressure or vocal opposition.

Gary D. Taylor, Iowa State University