Ripeness and Reviewable Orders in Administrative Law

The requirement of “ripeness” as a condition for judicial review is not so much a definable doctrine as a compendious portmanteau, a group of related doctrines arising in diverse but analogically similar situations. In its most general sense ripeness is a requirement not of the administrative action to be reviewed but of the judicial controversy between the plaintiff and the agency. Consider the case where an agency has gone no further than to threaten a certain action which the plaintiff in an equity or declaratory proceeding claims would be contrary to law: here, in all strictness, the controversy concerns not the legality of an administrative action but the construction of a statute or of the Constitution. Whether such cases are “ripe” for judicial intervention may involve not only the proper relation of agency and court but the existence of a controversy suitable for judicial determination. On the other hand, an agency may have taken definitive action; it may have, for example, promulgated a regulation or issued a complaint, served a subpoena or denied intervention. Whether these actions can be tested forthwith raises questions which are sometimes discussed under the rubric “ripeness,” sometimes “exhaustion of remedies,” sometimes “standing.” Discussion under any of these rubrics may suffice, but in certain cases the issue is faced more squarely under one than under another. In the famous Columbia Broadcasting System case, I would say that the question was primarily one of “standing,” since there were no administrative remedies available to the plaintiff; it was at least possible, though not likely, that those who could pursue such remedies might never invoke them. In short, the question was not so much whether the controversy was “ripe” but whether there was or at any time would be a justiciable controversy between the plaintiff and the defendant.