Tag Archives: Free Enterprise Fund

7th Circuit Rules for SEC, Affirming Dismissal of Bebo Case on Jurisdictional Grounds

On August 24, 2015, the Seventh Circuit handed the SEC a major victory in the ongoing battle over alleged constitutional infirmities of the SEC’s administrative judicial process.  It agreed with the lower court that Laurie Bebo’s federal court challenge to her administrative proceeding cannot be heard in the case filed by her seeking injunctive relief against an SEC administrative proceeding.  The court found that the circumstances of Bebo’s case were such that she was required to wait to present her constitutional objections before a federal appellate court on review of whatever action the SEC might ultimately take against her.  The opinion can be read here: 7th Circuit Decision in Bebo v. SEC.

The court found that the Bebo case — and presumably others like hers — was not like the PCAOB case in which the Supreme Court decided the constitutional challenge could be heard immediately, in Free Enterprise Fund v. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, 561 U.S. 477 (2010).  The court summarized: “It is ‘fairly discernible’ from the statute that Congress intended plaintiffs in Bebo’s position ‘to proceed exclusively through the statutory review scheme’ set forth in 15 U.S.C. § 78y.  See Elgin v. Dep’t of Treasury, 567 U.S. —, 132 S. Ct. 2126, 2132–33 (2012).  Although § 78y is not ‘an exclusive route to review’ for all types of constitutional challenges, the relevant factors identified by the Court in Free Enterprise Fund v. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, 561 U.S. 477, 489 (2010), do not adequately support Bebo’s attempt to skip the administrative and judicial review process here.  Although Bebo’s suit can reasonably be characterized as ‘wholly collateral’ to the statute’s review provisions and outside the scope of the agency’s expertise, a finding of preclusion does not foreclose all meaningful judicial review. . . .  And because she is already a respondent in a pending administrative proceeding, she would not have to ‘‘bet the farm … by taking the violative action’ before ‘testing the validity of the law.’’ . . .  Unlike the plaintiffs in Free Enterprise Fund, Bebo can find meaningful review of her claims under § 78y.”

The court then addressed the arguments in greater detail:

The statutory issue here is a jurisdictional one: whether the statutory judicial review process under 15 U.S.C. § 78y bars district court jurisdiction over a constitutional challenge to the SEC’s authority when the plaintiff is the respondent in a pending enforcement proceeding.  Where the statutory review scheme does not foreclose all judicial review but merely directs that judicial review occur in a particular forum, as in this case, the appropriate inquiry is whether it is “fairly discernible” from the statute that Congress intended the plaintiff “to proceed exclusively through the statutory review scheme.” Elgin v. Dep’t of Treasury, 567 U.S. —, 132 S.Ct. 2126, 2132–33 (2012). 

This inquiry is claim-specific.  To find congressional intent to limit district court jurisdiction, we must conclude that the claims at issue “are of the type Congress intended to be reviewed within th[e] statutory structure.”  Free Enterprise Fund, 561 U.S. at 489, quoting Thunder Basin Coal Co. v. Reich, 510 U.S. 200, 212 (1994).  We examine the statute’s text, structure, and purpose. . . .

. . . .  Our focus in this appeal is whether Bebo’s case is sufficiently similar to Free Enterprise Fund to allow her to bypass the ALJ and judicial review under § 78y.  Based on the Supreme Court’s further guidance in Elgin, we believe the answer is no.

. . . .

Read broadly, the jurisdictional portion of Free Enterprise Fund seems to open the door for a plaintiff to gain access to federal district courts by raising broad constitutional challenges to the authority of the agency where those challenges (1) do not depend on the truth or falsity of the agency’s factual allegations against the plaintiff and (2) the plaintiff’s claims do not implicate the agency’s expertise.  That’s how Bebo reads the case.  She argues that Free Enterprise Fund controls here because her complaint raises facial challenges to the constitutionality of the enabling statute (§ 929P(a) of Dodd-Frank) and to the structural authority of the agency itself, and the merits of those claims do not depend on the truth or falsity of the SEC’s factual claims against Bebo or implicate the agency’s expertise.  While Bebo’s position has some force, we think the Supreme Court’s more recent discussion of these issues in the Elgin case undermines the broader reading of the jurisdictional holding of Free Enterprise Fund.

. . . .

[T]he Elgin Court specifically rejected the plaintiffs’ argument, advanced by Bebo in this appeal and by the dissent in Elgin, that facial constitutional challenges automatically entitled the plaintiffs to seek judicial review in the district court. . . .

The Elgin Court also read the jurisdictional portion of Free Enterprise Fund narrowly, distinguishing it on grounds directly relevant here. . . .  [In Elgin, b]ecause the [controlling statute] provided review in the Federal Circuit, “an Article III court fully competent to adjudicate petitioners’ claims [of unconstitutionality],” the statutory scheme provided an opportunity for meaningful judicial review.

. . . .

Elgin established several key points that undermine Bebo’s effort to skip administrative adjudication and statutory judicial review here.  First, Elgin made clear that Bebo cannot
sue in district court under § 1331 merely because her claims are facial constitutional challenges.  Second, it established that jurisdiction does not turn on whether the SEC has authority to hold § 929P(a) of Dodd-Frank unconstitutional, nor does it hinge on whether Bebo’s constitutional challenges fall outside the agency’s expertise.  Third, Elgin showed that the ALJ’s and SEC’s fact-finding capacities, even if more limited than a federal district court’s, are sufficient for meaningful judicial review.  Finally, Elgin explained that the possibility that Bebo might prevail in the administrative proceeding (and thereby avoid the need to raise her constitutional claims in an Article III court) does not render the statutory review scheme inadequate.

. . . .  We think the most critical thread in the case law is the first Free Enterprise Fund factor: whether the plaintiff will be able to receive meaningful judicial review without access to the district courts.  The second and third Free Enterprise Fund factors, although relevant to that determination, are not controlling, for the Supreme Court has never said that any of them are sufficient conditions to bring suit in federal district court under § 1331.  We therefore assume for purposes of argument that Bebo’s claims are “wholly collateral” to the administrative review scheme.  Even if we give Bebo the benefit of that assumption, we think it is “fairly discernible” that Congress intended Bebo to proceed exclusively through the statutory review scheme established by § 78y because that scheme provides for meaningful judicial review in “an Article III court fully competent to adjudicate petitioners’ claims.”

. . . .

Bebo’s counter to this way of synthesizing the cases is that the administrative review scheme established by § 78y is inadequate because, by the time she is able to seek judicial review in a court of appeals, she will have already been subjected to an unconstitutional proceeding. The Supreme Court rejected this type of argument in FTC v. Standard Oil Co., 449 U.S. 232, 244 (1980), holding that the expense and disruption of defending oneself in an administrative proceeding does not automatically entitle a plaintiff to pursue judicial review in the district courts, even when those costs are “substantial.”

This point is fundamental to administrative law. Every person hoping to enjoin an ongoing administrative proceeding could make this argument, yet courts consistently require plaintiffs to use the administrative review schemes established by Congress. . . .  It is only in the exceptional cases, such as Free Enterprise Fund and McNary, where courts allow plaintiffs to avoid the statutory review schemes prescribed by Congress. This is not
such a case.

Although several courts have now reached differing conclusions on this jurisdictional issue (see In Duka v. SEC, SDNY Judge Berman Finds SEC Administrative Law Enforcement Proceedings Constitutional in a Less than Compelling Opinion, and Court Issues Preliminary Injunction Halting Likely Unconstitutional SEC Proceeding), the Seventh Circuit is the first appellate court to do so, and that alone is likely to carry weight elsewhere.  But this is also a strongly-stated opinion, which examines seriously and in depth the somewhat varying Supreme Court precedent.  The fact that the court takes on Ms. Bebo’s arguments directly and rejects them on the basis of its interpretation of the Supreme Court precedent makes it even more likely to be influential.

The D.C. and Eleventh Circuits may be the next appellate courts to consider the jurisdictional issue.  The D.C. Circuit heard argument on this jurisdictional issue in Jarkesy v. SEC, and it may issue the next appellate opinion.  See Appeals panel considers SEC’s use of in-house courts.  And the 11th Circuit has already received the SEC’s brief on appeal in Hill v. SEC, which it appealed from the preliminary injunction issued by Judge Leigh May in the Northern District of Georgia.  See SEC 11th Circuit Appeal Brief in Hill v. SEC.  Because Judge May decided her court had jurisdiction, and then went on to find a likely constitutional violation, The 11th Circuit briefs will address both the jurisdictional issue and the merits of some of the constitutional arguments.  If the 11th Circuit agrees with the 7th Circuit that there is no jurisdiction to bring these cases, however, it will vacate the preliminary injunction and not address the merits of Mr. Hill’s claim.

Depending on what these appellate courts do, and whether they concur in the 7th Circuit’s analysis, the door to injunctive relief in the federal courts for these alleged constitutional violations may slam shut.  That would focus attention on the merits of the claims in cases decided by the SEC on a petition for review from an administrative decision.  The case likely to be the first such SEC decision that could be appealed would seem to be In the Matter of Timbervest, LLC, in which the SEC is still receiving supplemental briefing addressing constitutional and discovery issues.  See SEC Broadens Constitutional Inquiry into Its Own Administrative Judges in Timbervest Case and Division of Enforcement Continues To Refuse To Comply with SEC Orders in Timbervest Case.

Stay tuned.

Straight Arrow

August 24, 2015

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SEC ALJ Says He Lacks Authority To Decide Key Constitutional Challenges

On May 14, 2014, in In the Matter of Charles L. Hill, Jr., File No. 3-16383, SEC administrative law judge James Grimes ruled that he had no authority to decide that a portion of the Dodd-Frank Act allowing the SEC to commence civil actions against unregulated persons in its administrative law court was unconstitutional.  That could have a bearing on the issue of the standing of SEC administrative targets to bring federal court challenges to those proceedings.  ALJ Grimes did decide that he could address the constitutionality of the double layer of tenure protection provided to SEC ALJs against Presidential removal power, and, not surprisingly, ruled that he held his position constitutionally.  But he declined to offer any view on Mr. Hill’s arguments that the Dodd-Frank Act improperly delegated authority to the SEC, and that he had been denied a Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial.  The Order is available here: Order Denying Respondent’s Motion for Summary Disposition on Constitutional Issues.

On the issue of his authority to rule, he wrote:

After receiving Mr. Hill’s motion, I directed the parties to address “whether I have the authority to rule on Mr. Hill’s constitutional challenges.” . . .  The Division responded that I have authority to rule on Mr. Hill’s challenges. . . .  Mr. Hill disagrees. . . .

Subsequent to instructing the parties to address my authority to rule on Mr. Hill’s constitutional challenges, it came to my attention that the Commission has repeatedly held that it lacks the authority “to invalidate the very statutes that Congress has directed [it] to enforce.” . . .  It has recently reaffirmed this interpretation of its authority. . . .  The Commission thus operates on the assumption that its “governing statutes are constitutional” “[u]nless and until the courts declare otherwise.”

It follows from the foregoing that I lack the authority to rule on the constitutionality of particular provisions of the Exchange Act.

ALJ Grimes nevertheless concluded that he could address the issue of constitutionality of the double-layer of tenure protection afforded to SEC ALJs because that involved protections under 5 U.S.C. § 7521, which is not part of the Exchange Act.  He did so even though: “It would be incongruous . . . if I were unable to address the constitutionality of a provision of the Exchange Act, an Act I am regularly required to construe, but able to address the constitutionality of Section 7521, a provision I do not normally encounter.”

Turning to the double-layer of tenure protection, he “assumed” that ALJs are “inferior officers” of the Executive Branch, noting that “[b]oth parties have presented strong arguments in support of their positions.”  Nevertheless, he found that the double-layer of protection given to SEC ALJs against removal by the President does not make them unconstitutional because SEC ALJs “exercise only adjudicatory functions” that are “limited to a specific subject matter.”  In doing so, he relied almost exclusively on the Supreme Court’s decision in Morrison v. Olson, 487 U.S. 654 (1988), which addressed the constitutionality of the independent special prosecutor statute, and said “the real question is whether the removal restrictions are of such a nature that they impede the President’s ability to perform his constitutional duty, and the functions of the officials in question must be analyzed in that light.”  Id. at 691.  Because “the Commission’s administrative law judges exercise only adjudicatory functions,” and “their jurisdiction is limited to a specific subject matter and they ‘lack[] policymaking or significant administrative authority'” (quoting Morrison), “the dual-tenure protection afforded administrative law judges does not unconstitutionally impair the President’s ability to remove executive branch officials because those particular officials do not perform functions ‘central to the functioning of the Executive Branch'” (again quoting Morrison).

ALJ Grimes concludes: “Furthermore, taken to its logical end, Mr. Hill’s argument would mean that almost no independent agency could use administrative law judges.  If “‘a page of history is worth a volume of logic,’” however, it is unlikely this could be the case.”  Although he says that SEC ALJs are “not among ‘those who execute the laws,’” he does not address at all the critical role of SEC ALJs as part of what is probably the second most significant law enforcement agency in the federal government — the SEC — and the many respects in which SEC ALJs exercise significant discretion in the operation of that law enforcement process.

But ALJ Grimes chose not to offer any view on the other two constitutional challenges raised by Mr. Hill: (1) that “by giving the Commission the discretion to choose whether to seek civil penalties against unregulated individuals either administratively or in district court, Congress impermissibly delegated legislative power to the Commission”; and (2) that “by giving the Commission authority to bring an administrative action against an unregulated individual, Congress infringed on his Seventh Amendment right to a jury.”

On these issues, ALJ Grimes concluded that the limits on his authority to address constitutional issues preclude him from addressing those arguments.  Interestingly, in reaching this conclusion, he also implicitly holds that the SEC itself has no power to reach those issues, because the grounds for limiting his authority apply equally to the Commission.  That gives significant ammunition to those trying to get judicial review of these constitutional issues, because the standing to do so depends in part on whether the SEC has the power to address them as part of the normal administrative adjudication process.

Straight Arrow

May 15, 2015

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Briefing of ALJ Constitutionality Before SEC Leaves Resolution in Doubt

We discuss today the SEC’s pending consideration of a challenge to its administrative law process in In the Matter of Timbervest, LLC et al., File No. 3-15519.

Briefly, the case involved alleged violations of sections 206(1) and 206(2) of the Investment Advisors Act.  Timbervest is an Atlanta company that manages timber-related investments. The SEC alleged that in 2006 and 2007, company officers received unauthorized and undisclosed real estate commissions paid out of the pension plan assets of Timbervest’s largest client.  The SEC further alleges that in 2005-2006, Timbervest made an undisclosed and unauthorized sale of a timberland property from a fund holding that same client’s pension assets to another investment fund the firm managed.

The order instituting proceedings was issued in September 2013.  The administrative proceeding was tried before SEC Administrative Law Judge Cameron Elliot, who issued his Initial Decision in August 2014.  Mr. Elliot found for the Division of Enforcement in all respects except that he concluded two of the individual respondents lacked the scienter required for aiding and abetting the firm’s violations, and that the five-year statute of limitations in 28 U.S.C. § 2462 precluded the associational bars sought against the individuals and the revocation of Timbervest’s adviser’s license.  Both the respondents and the Division of Enforcement petitioned the SEC for review, and both petitions were granted.  In their ensuing filings, the respondents argued, among other things, that the administrative process was unconstitutional because SEC ALJs are executive officers who enjoy “two-tiered tenure protection,” although they dedicated only two paragraphs in their opening brief to this issue, and the Division of Enforcement responded with only one paragraph in its opposition brief.  In response, the Commission asked that the parties file supplemental briefs on that issue.

Those supplemental briefs have now been filed.  The Division of Enforcement’s supplemental brief is here, the respondents’ supplemental brief is here, and a supplemental notice of authority by the respondents is here.  The SEC recently scheduled oral argument on the case for June 8, 2015.  We know, of course, that the SEC is going to uphold the constitutionality of its own ALJs, so the result at this stage is not really in question.  But there will be an appeal to a court of appeals (either the D.C. Circuit or the Eleventh Circuit are possibilities), so it’s useful to see how convincingly the Division of Enforcement argued the constitutionality issue to the Commission.  By my measure, the arguments made are pretty weak, which still leaves to $64,000 Question: will a court of appeals or the Supreme Court really be willing to invalidate the SEC ALJ framework on the basis of this record?

The Division of Enforcement argued that “Commission administrative proceedings do not violate Article II of the Constitution” because “Commission ALJs are not constitutional officers – the only Court of Appeals to have considered the status of an agencys ALJs concluded they are employees, see Landry v. FDIC, 204 F.3d 1125, 1132-34 (D.C. Cir. 2002) – and therefore the removal framework applicable to them does not implicate Article II. And even if Commission ALJs were constitutional officers, the President exercises adequate control to satisfy the Constitution.”  Division Supplemental Br. at 1.

Let’s examine those arguments.

The Argument that “Commission ALJs Are Not Constitutional Officers”

The first argument – that the SEC ALJs are “employees” rather than “inferior officers” from a constitutional standpoint – seems particularly weak.  Perhaps if the SEC were writing on a blank slate this might be sustainable.  But it is not deciding this issue without controlling guidance.  There are a number of Supreme Court decisions out there that must be taken into account.  The Division’s brief does a poor job of addressing these binding precedents.

As we previously wrote (see Challenges to the Constitutionality of SEC Administrative Proceedings in Peixoto and Stilwell May Have Merit), the Supreme Court addressed similar issues in decisions in Freytag v. Commissioner, 501 U.S. 868 (1991), Weiss v. United States, 510 U.S. 163 (1994); Ryder v. United States, 515 U.S. 177 (1995); and Edmond v. United States, 520 U.S. 651 (1997).  Freytag ruled that special trial judges for the Tax Court were “inferior Officers” under the constitution, and not “employees” who assisted Tax Court judges in taking evidence and preparing a ruling – even though they lacked authority to render “final decisions” – because they exercised significant discretion in performing tasks like taking testimony, conducting trials, ruling on the admissibility of evidence, and deciding and ordering compliance with discovery orders.  Weiss noted that military judges were Officers of the United States because of their authority and responsibilities, but the issue was not contested by the parties.  Ryder ruled that that judges serving on the Coast Guard Court of Military Review were officers covered by the Appointments Clause, even though they were subject to review by a higher appellate court.  And Edmond explained that intermediate appellate military judges were not “principal officers,” because they were subordinate to a higher ranking officer below the President, were subject to oversight, and could not render final decisions, but plainly considered them to be “inferior officers.”

These cases negate many of the arguments made in the Division’s brief.  It mattered not that these other officials found to be executive officers were involved in a preliminary process; could not render final decisions; were subject to being reversed; served in an adjudicatory, rather than a “core executive” capacity; were subject to supervision by others; and even were “subordinate” to others.  All of the Division’s arguments that ALJs are “employees,” and not “executive officers” for those reasons simply cannot survive contrary Supreme Court precedent.

The invocation of the D.C. Circuit decision in Landry v. FDIC cannot change this.  In Landry, a split D.C. Circuit panel ruled that an FDIC ALJ was not an “inferior officer,” but was instead a mere “employee.”   The opinion questioned the usefulness of the Supreme Court’s guidance in Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1, 126 n.162 (1976), that “any appointee exercising significant authority pursuant to the laws of the United States is an ‘Officer of the United States.’”  But the Buckley language was the starting point for the analysis of this issue in Freytag, in which the Court found dispositive the “significance of the duties and discretion that special trial judges possess.”  501 U.S. at 881.  The Landry majority argued that the critical difference between the special trial judges in the Tax Court and the FDIC ALJs was that FDIC ALJs only made “recommendations” to the FDIC, and thus could never issue final decisions.  Not only did that misread Freytag, which focused on the array of “significant” “duties and discretion” of the special trial judges, and not final decision-making powers, but it also ignored the discussions in Weiss, Ryder, and Edmonds, which made it plain that being a final decision-maker was not a decisive factor in determining whether someone is an “inferior officer.”

But even accepting the Landry majority opinion on its face, it provides little assistance to the Division because in some cases SEC ALJs do make “final decisions” like the special trial judges of the Tax Court.  The FDIC was required to review every ALJ “recommendation.”  But the SEC can, and does, decline to review ALJ decisions, and in those cases, it matters little to constitutional analysis that these decisions require a ministerial Commission order to make them formally “final” and appealable.  Moreover, the SEC does not, and cannot realistically, review an ALJ’s management and oversight of the administrative trial itself, during which many “final decisions” are made on important issues that determine the record the SEC can review.  And, of course, the approach taken by a court of appeals panel – and a split one at that – hardly trumps the guidance of the Supreme Court on how to go about determining whether a government official is an “inferior officer.”

The final nail in the coffin of the Division’s argument that the D.C. Circuit decided once and for all in Landry that ALJs are only agency “employees,” and not executive “officers,” is laid out in the Timbervest respondents’ brief.  They point out that the Government itself admitted this is not so.  To avoid a writ of certiorari in Landry, the Government represented to the Supreme Court that the Landry court did not decide that issue.  Here is what the Solicitor General said: “The court of appeals did not purport to establish any categorical rule that administrative law judges are employees rather than ‘inferior Officers.’ . . .” Timbervest Respondents’ Br. at 16 (quoting the U.S. Government brief in opposition to the petition for writ of certiorari).

The Division’s brief presents another argument that carries little water on the “inferior officer” versus “employee” issue: that Congress already decided that ALJs are just employees, not executive officers, by its “placement of the position within the competitive service system,” and the courts must defer to that decision by Congress.  That is wrong in two respects.  First, there is no indication that Congress made any such decision when it placed ALJs within the overall civil service system, and the Division cites no support for that contention.  Second, and far more importantly, it should be wrong that Congress has the power to decide when double-tenure protection can prevent the President from influencing government officials simply by designating those officials to be mere “employees.”  The whole point of the separation of powers doctrine is to assure that Congress may not deprive the President of his constitutional authority to execute the laws; it would be bizarre if Congress could grant executive powers to officials and then insulate them from the President’s influence by exercising Legislative muscle.  The best the Division could muster on this point was language in Justice Souter’s concurring opinion in Weiss suggesting “deference to the principal branches’ judgment is appropriate” (Divison Br. at 8, quoting 510 U.S. at 194), but that is a slim reed that cannot, I believe, be sustained without doing serious harm to the separation of powers concept.

Freytag and the other Supreme Court cases make it crystal clear that whether an executive official is an “inferior officer” depends on the “significance of the duties and discretion” that the official possesses, not a Congressional designation.  The Division simply cannot avoid the obvious similarity – and near congruence – of the “duties and discretion” of SEC ALJs in comparison to the special trial judges at issue in Freytag.  The Court, which was otherwise divided, unanimously viewed the special trial judges as “inferior officers” within the meaning of the Constitution based on their duties, discretion, and overall role in executive department proceedings, which showed that they exercised “significant authority pursuant to the laws of the United States.”  The SEC ALJs have, in reality, at least as great, and almost surely greater, authority and discretion in SEC administrative law enforcement proceedings, and no argument made by the Division in its brief shows otherwise.

The Argument that “Even if Commission ALJs Were Constitutional Officers, the President Exercises Adequate Control To Satisfy the Constitution”

The Division’s argument that the President has adequate control over SEC ALJs faces only one major obstacle: the Supreme Court’s decision in Free Enterprise Fund v. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, 561 U.S. 477 (2010).  There, the Court found that a double layer of “for cause” protection for executive officers from removal by the President was constitutionally unacceptable.  The Division’s task is to identify differences that justify allowing double “for cause” protection for SEC ALJs despite the Free Enterprise Fund decision.  The Division is assisted here by footnote 10 of the opinion, which said: “our holding does not address that subset of independent agency employees who serve as administrative law judges. . . .   And unlike members of the Board, many administrative law judges of course perform adjudicative rather than enforcement or policymaking functions.”  561 U.S. at 507 n.10.

As we saw above, the mere fact that the SEC ALJs “perform adjudicative . . . functions” is not enough under Supreme Court precedent to prevent them from being executive officers performing executive functions.  And on this front, it does not help the Division that the SEC ALJs plainly serve as key players in the SEC’s law enforcement function.

The Division makes the argument, correctly, that the separation of powers doctrine does not create a rigid, formal structure of Branches hermetically-sealed from one another.  The Supreme Court recognizes that there are gray areas, and in such cases it is appropriate to conduct a functional analysis of the extent to which a statutory framework truly impairs a Branch from performing its constitutional duties.  Perhaps the best example of that is the special prosecutor case, Morrison v. Olson, 487 U.S. 654 (1988), which adopted a multifactor test to determine whether the statute that limited Executive control over the special prosecutor was consistent with the separation of powers doctrine.  The Division appropriately quotes Morrison’s statement that interference with removal of the special prosecutor can be acceptable if it does not “interfere with the President’s exercise of the ‘executive power’” or the duty to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”  Division Br. at 14 (quoting 487 U.S. at 689-90).

The Division’s brief goes on to draw distinctions between the PCAOB and the SEC’s administrative law judges, mostly by focusing on the PCAOB’s broader role in policymaking, as well as arguing that the PCAOB exercises power more independently than the ALJs.  Whether these are distinctions of constitutional dimension is not apparent, however, since in the realm in which the ALJs function, they have a high degree of independent control over a key law enforcement function, and the constitutional importance of whether they do or do not make policy (as opposed to performing other executive functions) is by no means clear.  But the point is sufficiently made that the analogy between the PCAOB and the ALJs is not so close that it is, in and of itself, compelling (as compared to the analogy of ALJs to the special trial judges in Freytag, which is so close that it is compelling).

Having made a credible showing that the unconstitutionality of the SEC ALJs does not follow inexorably from the Free Enterprise Fund decision, the Division turned to the argument that double insulation of the ALJs from Presidential removal does not significantly impair the President’s executive powers.  The Division makes five arguments.  Four of them are less than compelling; one is downright embarrassing.

First, the Division argues that the Commission decides when the ALJs get to decide cases, and the Commission has only one layer of “for cause” removal protection.  That formalistic argument would seem to carry little weight as part of a functional analysis, however.  From a realistic, functional standpoint, the Commission does – and in reality must – utilize the ALJs to do its enforcement work because it could not handle the workload without them. Put another way, the creation of the ALJs allows the Commission to expand its enforcement activity exponentially, and fueling that expansion with executive officers who cannot be influenced by the President has a real, functional effect on the President’s ability to execute the laws.

Second, the Division argues that “the functions that the Commission has assigned to its ALJs are limited in scope and do not rise to the level of core executive authority.”  Division Br. at 18.  This argument is, in essence, that because ALJs only adjudicate cases, and do not “make policy,” their activities do not significantly impair the President’s execution of the laws.  As the Division says: SEC ALJ adjudications “involve the application of the law to a discrete set of facts in individual cases.”  Id.  I see two problems with this argument. One, it runs headlong into the Supreme Court decisions (discussed above) that either hold, or assume, that officials performing adjudicative roles within an executive function are important facets of the President’s duty to oversee the faithful execution of the laws.  Two, overseeing individual prosecutions, finding facts in those cases, weighing the importance and implications of those facts under the law, and determining whether there are violations, and what remedies should be imposed if there are, are arguably the essence of “core executive authority” because law enforcement prosecutions are a core executive function.

Third, the Division argues that the President can “exercise constitutionally adequate control” over ALJ decisions because “the Commission retains ultimate authority over administrative proceedings” and “exercises sufficient control over SEC ALJs regardless of the limittations placed upon their removal.”  Division Br. at 19.  This is essentially a rehash of earlier points, and runs into the reality, and the buzzsaw of prior Supreme Court decisions, that adjudicators do, in fact, make essentially non-reviewable discretionary decisions that control how a case is presented to the Commission.  They mold the record the Commission gets to review, and that power substantially impacts – or certainly can substantially impact – the Commission’s substantive review powers.

Fourth, the Division argues that the double-tenure protection accorded to SEC ALJs is less extreme than the protection provided to the PCAOB members.  Id.  This is largely a one-paragraph throw-away point, as the Division makes no effort to explain how the difference it argues has a functional impact on Presidential control.

Fifth, “the Executive Branch’s use of tenure-protected ALJs for nearly seventy years establishes a gloss on the Constitution that supports the current removal framework.” Division Br. at 20.  The Division would have been better off leaving this out.  The SEC cannot seriously find that the structure of its administrative enforcement process should be deemed constitutional simply because it has been around for a long time.  The argument is revealing, however, because it reflects what the SEC staff – and probably the SEC itself – really thinks.  They could have written the point more eloquently if they said what they meant (paraphrasing the famous line in Treasure of the Sierra Madre): “Constitutional authority?  We don’t need no stinking constitutional authority.”

[The actual line in the movie is: “Badges?  We ain’t got no badges.  We don’t need no badges.  I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!”  And, as a diversion, enjoy this clip, this one from Blazing Saddles, and this montage.]

Humphrey Bogart in Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Humphrey Bogart in Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Alfonso Bedoya as

Alfonso Bedoya as “Gold Hat” in Treasure of the Sierra Madre — He don’t need no stinkin’ badges.

Seriously, though, the Division’s discussion of why the double-tenure protection of ALJs does not significantly impair the President’s ability to control SEC administrative law enforcement decisions is light on focused analysis of the nature of those law enforcement decisions, the respects in which the Chief Executive may have an interest in influencing those decisions, and the ways in which he can achieve those goals notwithstanding the double-tenure protection.  That is the kind of functional analysis called for by Morrison v. Olson, and the Division brief fails to address those key issues.

Based on reviewing these briefs, this continues to be a close call. The hydraulics are in the Division’s favor – certainly before the Commission, but also before an ultimate court of appeals, which will stretch mightily to avoid undercutting the SEC ALJ framework, and presumably other similar independent agency administrative enforcement frameworks (executive agencies, however, would not present the double-tenure protection issue).

Straight Arrow

May 6, 2015

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In Duka v. SEC, SDNY Judge Berman Finds SEC Administrative Law Enforcement Proceedings Constitutional in a Less than Compelling Opinion

Southern District of New York federal Judge Richard Berman yesterday decided that Barbara Duka, a former Standard & Poor’s employee charged with securities law violations by the SEC, cannot enjoin the SEC administrative enforcement action brought against her.  In doing so, Judge Berman rejected the argument that he lacked jurisdiction over the case, unlike two previous federal court judges.  See SEC Wins First Skirmish on Constitutional Challenge to Chau Administrative Proceeding, and Court Dismisses “Compelling and Meritorious” Bebo Constitutional Claims Solely on Jurisdictional Grounds.  As a result, he addressed the merits of Ms. Duka’s constitutional argument, finding the she was “unlikely to succeed on the merits” of that claim. Likely success on the merits of the claim is a requirement for granting the preliminary injunctive relief sought by Ms. Duka.  The opinion is available here: Order Denying Relief in Duka v. SEC.

Jurisdiction

Judge Berman rejected the jurisdictional argument accepted by two prior judges because, unlike them, he concluded that the relief sought by Ms. Duka could not be satisfied within the administrative adjudication process, the challenge made addressed not the substance of the claims against her but the very suitability of the forum to adjudicate those claims, and the constitutional issue fell outside of the SEC’s area of expertise.

On the availability of a remedy, here is what the court said:

The Court concludes that the absence of subject matter jurisdiction “could foreclose all meaningful judicial review” of Plaintiff’s claim. . . .  The Court of Appeals obviously would not be able, upon appellate review of any final SEC order, to enjoin the SEC from conducting the Administrative Proceeding, as Duka asks this Court to do.  And, while the Court of Appeals could, presumably, vacate an adverse decision (order) by the SEC on constitutional grounds, it would be unable to remedy the harm alleged by Plaintiff in this Court, i.e., the “substantial litigation and resource burdens incurred during [the] administrative proceeding,” and the “reputational harm” associated with her defending the Administrative Proceeding. . . .

Plaintiff is not here challenging the outcome of her Administrative Proceeding or any order(s) issued by the SEC.  Rather, Plaintiff seeks to enjoin the proceeding itself, and the (injunctive and declaratory) relief she seeks is to prevent the Administrative Proceeding from occurring in the first place. . . .  If Plaintiff were required, as the Government urges, to await the completion of the Administrative Proceeding to seek (any) judicial intervention, important remedies could be foreclosed.  That is, her claim for injunctive and declaratory relief would likely be moot at that stage because the allegedly unconstitutional Administrative Proceeding would have already taken place. Simply put, there would be no proceeding to enjoin. . . .

Slip op. at 10-12 (cites and footnotes omitted).

And this on whether the relief sought was collateral to the substance of the underlying proceeding, or an appropriate part of that proceeding:

The Court concludes that Plaintiff’s claim for injunctive and declaratory relief is “wholly collateral” to “any Commission orders or rules from which review might be sought” in the Court of Appeals. . . .  In Free Enterprise, the Supreme Court found that the petitioners’ Article II claim was collateral because “petitioners object[ed] to the Board’s existence, not to any of its auditing standards.”. . .  Similarly, Duka contends that her Administrative Proceeding may not constitutionally take place, and she does not attack any order that may be issued in her Administrative Proceeding relating to “the outcome of the SEC action.”  Chau [v. SEC], 2014 WL 6984236, at *13; see Gupta [v. SEC], 796 F. Supp. 2d at 513 (where plaintiff “would state a claim even if [he] were entirely guilty of the charges made against him . . . .”).

Unlike the plaintiffs in Chau, Duka does not assert an “as-applied” challenge to agency action “in light of the facts of a specific case.”  Chau, 2014 WL 6984236, at *6.  Rather, she contends that Administrative Proceedings are “unconstitutional in all instances—a facial challenge.”  Id.  As Judge Kaplan noted in Chau, “courts are more likely to sustain preenforcement jurisdiction over broad facial and systematic challenges.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

Slip op. at 12-13.

On the issue of the SEC’s expertise to decide the constitutional issue, Judge Berman wrote:

Without in any way diminishing ALJ Elliot’s exceptional legal background, the Court concludes that the constitutional claim posed in this injunctive/declaratory judgment case is outside the SEC’s expertise.  This aspect of executive agency practice is governed by clear Supreme Court precedent.  See Thunder Basin [Coal Co. v. Reich], 510 U.S. at 215 (“[A]djudication of the constitutionality of congressional enactments has generally been thought beyond the jurisdiction of administrative agencies.”); see also Free Enterprise [Fund v. Pub. Co. Accounting Oversight Bd.], 561 U.S. at 491 (“Petitioners’ constitutional claims are also outside the Commission’s competence and expertise . . . .  [T]he statutory questions involved do not require ‘technical considerations of [agency] policy’. . . .  They are instead standard questions of administrative law, which the courts are at no disadvantage in answering.”).

Slip op. at 14.

Likelihood of Success on the Merits

When he turned to the merits of the constitutional issue, Judge Berman was unwilling to apply the Supreme Court’s Free Enterprise Fund decision to the SEC’s administrative law judges. Not, however, because he doubted that SEC ALJ’s are “inferior officers” of the Executive Branch in constitutional terms.  He did not decide that issue, because he said it was unnecessary, but plainly viewed prior Supreme Court precedent regarding Tax Court special trial judges in Freytag v. Commissioner likely to be determinative: “The Supreme Court’s decision in Freytag v. Commissioner, 501 U.S. 868 (1991), which held that a Special Trial Judge of the Tax Court was an “inferior officer” under Article II, would appear to support the conclusion that SEC ALJs are also inferior officers. See Freytag, 501 U.S. at 881–82 (“[S]pecial trial judges perform more than ministerial tasks. They take testimony, conduct trials, rule on the admissibility of evidence, and have the power to enforce compliance with discovery orders. In the course of carrying out these important functions, the special trial judges exercise significant discretion.”).  Slip op. at 16.  As noted, however, Judge Berman decided he “need not resolve that issue.”  Id.

That is because he reasoned that even if the SEC’s ALJ’s are inferior officers, the double-layer of removal protection they are accorded by statute does not undermine the President’s Executive power.  He noted that the Free Enterprise Fund Court “specifically excluded ALJs from the reach of its holding,” and rejected Ms. Duka’s argument that Free Enterprise Fund established a “categorical rule” forbidding two levels of “good cause” tenure protection.  Slip op. at 17.

Instead, Judge Berman created “a functional test to determine whether and when statutory limitations on the President’s power to remove executive officers violate Article II” based on other Supreme Court precedent.  He relied on the Supreme Court’s special prosecutor case, Morrison v. Olson, 487 U.S. 654 (1988), to argue for a test focused on whether Congress “interfere[d] with the President’s exercise of the ‘executive power’ under Article II” (quoting Morrison, 487 U.S. at 689-90). Although Free Enterprise Fund had no similar language regarding the double-layer of removal protection, Judge Berman argued that the Free Enterprise Fund decision “likewise focused upon whether the statutory restrictions on removal of PCAOB members were so structured as to infringe the President’s constitutional authority by ‘depriv[ing] the President of adequate control over the Board.’ Free Enterprise, 561 U.S. at 508.”  Slip op. at 17-18.

Judge Berman went on to reason “that congressional restrictions upon the President’s ability to remove ‘quasi judicial’ agency adjudicators are unlikely to interfere with the President’s ability to perform his executive duties.”  He argued that SEC ALJs exercise adjudicative power rather than executive power, and therefore the limits on removal of ALJs do not interfere with the President’s exercise of executive power.  He contrasted the Free Enterprise Fund case, which involved a subordinate entity of the SEC that “determines the policy and enforces the laws of the United States.”  Slip op. at 19-20.  In contrast, he said: “SEC ALJs perform solely adjudicatory functions, and are not engaged in policymaking or enforcement.”  Id. at 20.  As a result, “[t]he challenged (good cause) limitations upon the removal of an SEC ALJ will in no way ‘impede the President’s ability to perform his constitutional duty.’  Morrison, 487 U.S. at 691.”

Indeed, he argues that if the President could dismiss ALJ’s without cause, that would “undermine” the agency adjudication process, citing an article by Elena Kagan, written before she became a Supreme Court justice. Slip op. at 21.

How Good Is the Opinion, and How Influential Might It Be

Having elided the issue of whether the SEC ALJs are “inferior officers,” the opinion strikes me as somewhat superficial and relatively weak effort at resolving the constitutional issues that arise if they are, indeed, officers in the Executive Branch.  Judge Berman dispenses with this issue in a mere 4-1/2 double-spaced pages. His treatments of the Supreme Court decisions in Morrison v. Olson, Wiener v. United States, and the grandfather of them all, Humphrey’s Executor v. United States, are largely superficial.  In Judge Berman’s view, the fact that ALJ’s perform their executive duties as part of an adjudicative process insulates them from the need for control or influence by the Chief Executive.  He makes no real effort to examine the constitutional consequences of exempting large numbers of Executive Department officers from the need for Presidential control, and fails even to address the conundrum of treating an Executive Department officer within a law enforcement agency as if he or she were just another judge.  The nuances of how to accord administrative judges the freedom to act as an independent judicial branch within a powerful law enforcement department of the Executive Branch are basically ignored.  In sum, the effort lacks the depth and studiousness of an opinion likely to persuade appellate courts, and possibly other district courts as well.  It may well be that a proper, complete, and thorough argument along these lines can be made, but it is not reflected in this opinion.

Judge Berman effectively creates an adjudicative exception to the need for Presidential control over “inferior officers” involved in an adjudicative process within the Executive Branch. That is, essentially, formed out of whole cloth.  His core argument — “that congressional restrictions upon the President’s ability to remove ‘quasi judicial’ agency adjudicators are unlikely to interfere with the President’s ability to perform his executive duties” — is pure ipse dixit.  Short references to Humphrey’s Executor, Wiener, and Morrison, none of which involved facts and circumstances even vaguely like this case, hardly suffice to justify such a broad-reaching conclusion.  Many of the Supreme Court decisions addressing the role of the Executive in non-Article III courts are not examined, or even mentioned. Included among these is the separation of powers discussion in Freytag v. Commissioner, which Judge Berman acknowledged in the first part of his opinion and ignored thereafter (Freytag has an extensive discussion of the separation of powers implications of performing adjudicative functions outside in non-Article III courts).  Since Free Enterprise Fund plainly treats the SEC as an Executive Department, and there is abundant case law addressing the constitutional treatment of non-Article III courts, an in-depth analysis of those cases would seem necessary before reaching Judge Berman’s conclusions. I haven’t delved into those cases any more than he does (which is to say, not at all), but I’m certain that a reasoned resolution of the issue requires a lot more spade work than I see reflected in Judge Berman’s four pages on the issue.

Judge Berman’s decision also proceeds on the assumption that it is not important – and, indeed, could be harmful – for the President to be able to exercise authority over officials within the Executive Branch who perform adjudicative-like functions. That fails totally to consider the context in which the SEC ALJs function.  Judge Berman seems to think all ALJs perform the same kind of function, and none of them do things the Chief Executive cares much about.  But some ALJs, like those in the SEC, are critical cogs in a law enforcement process addressing large portions of the Nation’s economic and financial infrastructure.  They play a critical role in an Executive process to enforce the law, and exercise considerable discretion in doing so, without any direct supervisors.  The SEC’s enforcement actions already proceed with, at best, limited input from, or control by, the President. To the contrary, the SEC touts itself as being “independent” of the President.  If the SEC’s ALJs are, indeed, executive officers playing key roles in implementing a quintessentially executive function – the enforcement of the laws – why does the fact that ALJs follow an adjudicative-like process as part of that function mean they should be doubly insulated from Presidential influence? Judge Berman effectively postulates this as a necessary aspect of having an agency-based adjudicatory function, but the stated support for that – even if it is a law review article by Elena Kagan — is slim indeed, putting aside whether the very concept of an independent judiciary, functioning within an independent law enforcement agency, has any place in Articles I, II, or III of the Constitution.

There also is no mention or apparent consideration of potential Appointments Clause issues in this context. That may well be because Ms. Duka’s counsel never pressed those issues.  But if the SEC’s ALJs are officers of the Executive Branch, the Appointments Clause applies, and it is not at all clear whether the appointment process for SEC ALJs complies with that process.

Conclusion

To be sure, this decision represents a victory for the SEC in another battle in this campaign.  The loss on the jurisdiction issue is more than outweighed by the favorable ruling on the merits issue.  (Although it may encourage the DC Circuit to reach the merits of the constitutional issue in the recently-argued appeal in Jarkesy v. SEC).  The approach taken by the court does suggest that the SEC may not fare well in its arguments that its administrative law judges are not “inferior officers,” but the overall rejection of the Free Enterprise Fund double-insulation theory provides the groundwork for future SEC arguments on the merits in other courts.  One of those courts may take the time and make the effort to provide a more thorough consideration of the merits issue, but for now, count this as a significant, if not definitive, victory for the Commission.

Straight Arrow

April 16, 2015

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Court Dismisses “Compelling and Meritorious” Bebo Constitutional Claims Solely on Jurisdictional Grounds

On March 3, 2015, Eastern District of Wisconsin District Judge Rudolph Randa dismissed the action brought by Laurie Bebo, former CEO of Assisted Living Concepts, Inc., to enjoin the SEC’s administrative enforcement proceeding against her.  The opinion is available here: Order Dismissing Complaint in Bebo v. SEC.  We previously discussed Ms. Bebo’s complaint here: New Challenge to the Constitutionality of an SEC Administrative Proceeding Filed in Bebo v. SEC, and followed up with discussions of the merits of her claims here (In re Bebo Shows Why SEC Administrative Proceedings Have Fairness Issues) and here (SEC ALJ Cameron Elliot Shows Why In re Bebo Should Be in Federal Court).

The judge found that even if Ms. Bebo’s arguments have merit, she is required to defend the administrative action in the SEC’s administrative law court, present her arguments there, and if needed, seek review by the SEC itself, and ultimately by a federal court of appeals.  Judge Renda thus adopted the same approach as SDNY Judge Lewis Kaplan in Chau v. SEC, which is discussed here: SEC Wins First Skirmish on Constitutional Challenge to Chau Administrative Proceeding.  Judge Kaplan’s decision is now on appeal to the Second Circuit court of appeals.

Judge Randa concluded he was jurisdictionally bound to reject the Bebo action, but he didn’t stand totally mute.  He started out his opinion by saying: “The Court finds that Bebo’s claims are compelling and meritorious, but whether that view is correct cannot be resolved here.”  Slip op. at 3.  But, after whetting our appetite with that comment, he proceeded to explain why he believed Ms. Bebo is required to submit to the entire administrative enforcement process and make her arguments there, rather than seeking immediate intervention by a federal court.  He noted that the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 provides that “a ‘person aggrieved’ by a final SEC order ‘may obtain review of the order in the United States Court of Appeals for the circuit in which he resides or has his principal place of business'” (quoting 15 U.S.C. § 78y(a)(1)), and that such provisions “’generally preclude de novo review in the district courts, requiring litigants to bring challenges ‘in the Court of Appeals or not at all.’’”  Id. at 3-4 (quoting Altman v. SEC, 687 F.3d 44, 45-46 (2d Cir. 2012)).  Although the Supreme Court, in Free Enterprise Fund v. Pub. Co. Accounting Oversight Bd., 561 U.S. 477 (2010), found that a district court could properly exercise jurisdiction over an injunctive action to address the allegedly unconstitutional proceeding in that case, that did not apply here because in Free Enterprise Fund, no proceeding had yet commenced when the action was brought in federal court.  Slip op. at 5-6.  The judge also found that Ms. Bebo could make an adequate record during the administrative proceeding to allow a court of appeals a sufficient basis for considering her grounds for challenging the proceeding.  Id. at 6-9.

Judge Randa concluded by quoting Judge Kaplan’s decision in the Chau case:

Ultimately, Bebo’s argument regarding the lack of meaningful judicial review lies in her objection to being subject to a procedure that she contends is wholly unconstitutional.  But as one judge observed, district court jurisdiction “is not an escape hatch for litigants to delay or derail an administrative action when statutory channels of review are entirely adequate.”  Chau v. SEC, No. 14-cv-1903 (LAK), — F. Supp. 3d —-, 2014 WL 6984236, at *6 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 11, 2014).  If the process is constitutionally defective, Bebo can obtain relief before the Commission, if not the court of appeals.  See, e.g., Landry v. F.D.I.C., 204 F.3d 1125 (D.C. Cir. 2000) (addressing Article II challenge to FDIC’s method of appointing ALJs on appeal from a final FDIC Order).  Until then, Bebo must “patiently await the denouement of proceedings within the Article II branch.” USAA Fed. Sav. Bank v. McLaughlin, 849 F.2d 1505, 1510 (D.C. Cir. 1988).

If other district courts hearing challenges to pending or threatened SEC administrative proceedings follow the same path as Judges Kaplan and Randa, it will take awhile to get any reasoned judicial analysis of the validity of the SEC’s expanded use of its administrative courts to impose sanctions under the 2010 authority provided in the Dodd Frank Act.  At this point, all we have is Judge Randa’s teasing dicta “that Bebo’s claims are compelling and meritorious.”

In the meantime, our own discussion of some of the issues raised by Ms. Bebo, and other cases challenging the constitutionality of the SEC administrative proceedings under the standard laid out in Free Enterprise Fund, can be found here: Challenges to the Constitutionality of SEC Administrative Proceedings in Peixoto and Stilwell May Have Merit.

Straight Arrow

March 4, 2015

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Gray Financial Group v. SEC Is SEC’s Latest Constitutional Challenge

The latest constitutional challenge to an SEC administrative enforcement proceeding was filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia on February 19, 2015 in a case captioned Gray Financial Group, Inc. v. SEC, No. 1:15-cv-0492 (N.D. Ga.).  Gray Financial is a registered investment advisor subject to SEC regulatory oversight, and, as a result, has not been newly subjected to SEC administrative proceedings by the Dodd Frank Act’s 2010 expansion of jurisdiction of SEC administrative law judges to non-regulated persons.  As a result, the theory of the case is limited to alleged constitutional shortcomings that are unaffected by whether or not the putative respondent is an SEC-regulated entity.  In this respect, of the recent cases challenging SEC administrative enforcement actions, Gray Financial most resembles Stilwell v. SEC, previously filed the Southern District of New York.  See Stilwell v. SEC.

The complaint alleges that Gray Financial is a small investment advisory firm registered with the SEC, and in Georgia and Michigan.  It established as an investment alternative for Georgia-based pension funds, and with advice of counsel, an “alternative investment” in the form of a fund of funds.  Georgia recently adopted a new pension law permitting alternative investments by public pension funds.  The SEC commenced an investigation of whether the new fund complied with the Georgia law.  The SEC staff thereafter issued a “Wells notice” on the theory that the fund was not in compliance with the Georgia pension law.  Gray Financial contends that the Georgia law is unclear, has never been interpreted by Georgia courts, and that it acted only on the advice of experienced counsel.  Nonetheless, the SEC argued the firm intentionally violated the Georgia law and insisted on a “draconian” settlement to avoid an administrative enforcement proceeding.  A copy of the complaint is available here: Gray Financial Group v. SEC Complaint.

The complaint describes the SEC administrative proceeding process and the role of SEC ALJ’s in detail, including the insulation of the ALJ’s from removal by the SEC or the President for other than good cause.  It then lays out its constitutional argument that the SEC administrative law judges are executive officers outside of the control of the President, in violation of Article II of the Constitution:

Article II’s vesting authority requires that the principal and inferior officers of the Executive Branch be answerable to the President and not be separated from the President by attenuated chains of accountability.  Specifically, as the Supreme Court held in Free Enterprise, Article II requires that executive officers, who exercise significant executive power, not be protected from being removed by their superiors at will, when those superiors are themselves protected from being removed by the President at will.

The SEC ALJs’ removal scheme is contrary to this constitutional requirement because SEC ALJs are inferior officers for the purposes of Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, and because:

a. SEC ALJs are protected from removal by a statutory “good cause” standard; and

b. The SEC Commissioners who are empowered to seek removal of SEC ALJs – within the constraints of the “good cause” standard – are themselves protected from removal by an “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office” standard; and

c. The MSPB members who are empowered to effectuate the removal decision – again limited by a “good cause” standard – are themselves protected from removal by an “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office” standard.

Under this attenuated removal scheme, “the President cannot remove an officer who enjoys more than one level of good-cause protection, even if the President determines that the officer is neglecting his duties or discharging them improperly.  That judgment is instead committed to another officer, who may or may not agree with the President’s determination, and whom the President cannot remove simply because that officer disagrees with him.  This contravenes the President’s ‘constitutional obligation to ensure the faithful execution of the laws.’”  Free Enterprise [Fund v. Pub. Co. Accounting Oversight Bd.], 130 S. Ct. at 3147 (quoting Morrison v. Olson, 487 U.S. 654, 693 (1988)).

Because the President cannot oversee SEC ALJs in accordance with Article II, SEC administrative proceedings violate the Constitution.

Complaint, ¶¶ 60-63.  The relief sought is an injunction barring an SEC administrative proceeding.

Although the complaint describes many respects in which SEC administrative proceedings are less fair to respondents than federal court actions, it does not explicitly contend that the SEC’s threatened administrative proceeding would violate due process, the equal protection clause, the Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial in civil actions, or be an arbitrary and capricious agency action under the Administrative Procedure Act.  That likely is because SEC-regulated entities like Gray Financial have long been subject to administrative enforcement actions as part of the SEC’s overall authority over regulated entities.

The merits of the Article II theory laid out in the complaint were previously discussed in the earlier post: Challenges to the Constitutionality of SEC Administrative Proceedings in Peixoto and Stilwell May Have Merit.

Straight Arrow

February 24, 2015

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Challenges to the Constitutionality of SEC Administrative Proceedings in Peixoto and Stilwell May Have Merit

It’s not often that securities litigators get to breathe the rarefied air of constitutional law, but there are some challenging constitutional issues now being raised in opposition to the SEC’s use of administrative proceedings for its civil enforcement proceedings.

A range of such issues could be raised, some of them not limited to the administrative proceedings themselves.  They derive from the SEC’s peculiar (at least constitutionally) combination of authorities, powers, and responsibilities under the statutory framework created in the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.

In particular, the constitutionality of the administrative proceedings presided over by SEC administrative law judges has been challenged in two recent district court filings in Peixoto v. SEC and Stilwell v. SEC.  Those cases argue the administrative law judges cannot properly preside over such proceedings because they are officers of the United States who are not subject to removal at will by either the President or an appointee of the President, in violation of Article II of the Constitution.  Se our earlier discussion of these allegations here.  The complaints filed in those cases can be found here (Peixoto v SEC) and here (Stilwell v SEC).  Issues of due process were raised in Wing  Wing Chau v. SEC).  And there remains a distant cloud over much of the prosecutorial power of the SEC itself because its commissioners do not answer to the President when they exercise such powers.

A Little History Will Get Us Started

Although the first so-called independent agency was created before the turn of the 20th century when the Interstate Commerce Commission was established, the enormous growth of the so-called “Fourth Branch” came in the 1930s, when the Roosevelt Administration undertook a fundamental restructuring of the national government, based on a growing legal movement arguing that government affairs had grown too complex and specialized to be run by the purely political executive branch.  Complex commercial and financial activities, it was said, require the oversight of specialists in the field, who can apply expertise that normal executive department appointees, who come and go, cannot develop.  Brilliant legal minds like Felix Frankfurter developed jurisprudential theories justifying the need for, and propriety of, these administrative entities under our legal traditions.  Generations of lawyers have since been trained to accept this model as an enlightened approach to governance of the complex industrial state.

Frankfurter was a progenitor of the administrative state.  He was certain that the only viable means of governing a complex modern industrial state was to create government bureaus composed of experts who could apply neutral, scientific principles to guide commerce in the right direction.  He wrote in 1932:

Governmental regulation of banking, insurance, public utilities, industry, finance, immigration, the professions, health and morals, in short, the inevitable response of government to the needs of modern society, is building up a body of enactments not written by legislatures and of adjudications not made by courts, and only to a limited degree subject to their revisions.  These powers are lodged in vast congeries of agencies.  We are in the midst of a process, still largely unconscious and unscientific, of adjusting the play of these powers to the traditional system of Anglo-American law and courts.

Frankfurter and Davison, Cases and Other Materials on Administrative Law (1932), at vii.

So began the modern administrative state.  Multiple administrative agencies were created to develop rules governing commercial and financial activities, and to oversee compliance with those rules.  The FTC was created in 1914 to promote competition amidst great concern about trusts and monopolies, but it also was involved in efforts to try to deal with sharp practices in the sale of securities.  A focus on securities practices during the 1932 campaign led to the early proposal of a securities act, which became the Securities Act of 1933.  For a year, it was the FTC that had responsibility for overseeing that statute.  In 1934, the SEC was created in the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.  (Interestingly, some questioned the constitutionality of giving an independent agency the powers granted to the SEC, suggesting instead in earlier legislative proposals that they be given to the U.S. Post Office, based on the notion that the use of the postal service was key to securities transactions.)  Felix Frankfurter, who was thought by Roosevelt to be perhaps the greatest legal mind of his time, was a key architect of that statute.

Frankfurter brought with him some key protégés, not the least of which was James Landis, who eventually served on the FTC and as Chairman of the SEC from 1935 to 1937.  Landis is most renowned for his encomium to administrative agencies in the book The Administrative Process (1938).  In that book, Landis argued that the Nation desperately needed a “Fourth Branch” because of “the inadequacy of a simple tripartite form of government to deal with modern problems.”  Like Frankfurter, he believed that because complexities of modern commerce, “the need for expertness became dominant.”  In his view, legislation should only identify the scope of subject matter for an agency and the issues it should address, and then stand aside and allow administrative experts to apply broad discretion to those matters.  Landis and another Frankfurter acolyte, Benjamin Cohen, created the first draft of the Securities Act of 1933.

Felix Frankfurter

Frankfurter signature

James Landis 1936Benjamin V. Cohen

                James Landis                                                                                Benjamin Cohen

Even as the governmental alphabet soup burgeoned with the establishment of the SEC, FCC and other agencies, it was apparent that the precise constitutional nature of these entities was not clear.  They were touted as the best means of regulating business activity because they were supposedly “non-political,” applying expertise to set an enlightened path to guide and develop commerce.  To promote that theoretical aim, and because they were to set rules for and govern vast portions of United States commerce, these agencies were designed not to be a captive of, or to answer to, the “political” branches – the President and the Congress.

The SEC itself was created in the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.  There was a legislative battle over whether the securities regulator would be the FTC or a new commission created specifically to oversee the securities exchanges.  Roosevelt preferred FTC oversight, but a separate SEC won the day largely because of fear that the FTC would overregulate the securities industry.  Like the FTC, the SEC was conceived as an “independent agency,” with five commissioners that were Presidential appointees subject to Senate approval.  A maximum of three commissioners could be members of the same party.  It was intended by its creators to populate the growing “Fourth Branch.”

Like the FTC, and unlike an executive department, the President was not given the power to remove a commissioner.  In fact, although the Federal Trade Commission Act gave the President power to remove FTC commissioners for “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office” (i.e., not “at will”), the Securities Exchange Act had no provision addressing removal of commissioners.  It has since remained unclear what power the President may have to remove SEC commissioners, although it is usually assumed that he may do so only “for cause,” i.e., like the FTC, for “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office.”  The only time the Supreme Court addressed that issue, it accepted a stipulation by the parties that SEC commissioners “cannot themselves be removed by the President except [for] “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office,” and “decide[d] the case with that understanding.”  Free Enterprise Fund v. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, 561 U.S. 477, 487 (2010) (“Free Enterprise Fund”).

The Problem

The constitutional problems created by some powers and authorities exercised by the SEC arise out of the Commission’s intended independence of the Executive Branch.  As discussed above, there is no doubt that independence was intended.  The ability to act independently of both the Executive and Legislative Branches was the sine qua non of Frankfurter and his disciples because that was the only way to create the hypothesized “experts” that would provide reasoned, non-political, direction to the Nation’s complex financial and commercial activity.  James Landis’s The Administrative Process left no doubt that the intention of the creators of “independent agencies” was indeed to make them independent of the branches of government designated in the Constitution.  Here are his words:

The reasons for favoring [the independent, regulatory administrative agency] seem simple enough – a desire to have the fashioning of industrial policy removed to a degree from political influence.  At the same time, there seems to have been a hope that the independent agency would make for more professionalism than that which characterized the normal executive department.  Policies would thus be more permanent and could be fashioned with greater foresight than might attend their shaping under conditions where the dominance of executive power was pronounced.  Again, the idea of the independent Commission seems naturally to have evolved from the very concept of administrative power.  That power embraces functions exercisable by all three branches of government.  To have taken these functions and to have placed them in the hands of any one of the three branches of government would have seemed incongruous.  The natural solution was to place them beyond the immediate control of any one of the three branches, yet subject to checks by each of them.

Landis, The Administrative Process (1966 ed.), at 111.  Landis goes on to note that independence allowed agencies “to have achieved a degree of permanence and consistency that they might not have possessed had their formulation been too closely identified with the varying tempers of changing administrations,” and “professionalism in the nonindependent agencies has suffered on occasion at the hands of political superiors.”  Id. at 113-14.

But the traditional “separation of powers” among the three branches of government recognized in Articles I-III of the Constitution – Legislative, Executive, and Judicial – could not easily accommodate this new conception; recall that Landis argued the administrative agencies were needed to cure “the inadequacy of a simple tripartite form of government to deal with modern problems.”  Id. at 1.  Ever since 1935, the Supreme Court has had great difficulty articulating how to accommodate the Constitution’s framework with various forms of creative governing mechanisms that fall outside of Articles I, II or III.

In a nutshell, the SEC’s constitutional challenges are: (1) to remain consistent with Article II’s statement of Executive powers and responsibilities while pursuing law enforcement activities that by all appearances are Executive functions, i.e., “executing” those laws placed by Congress within its (and not the Executive’s) jurisdiction; and (2) to adjudicate law enforcement proceedings internally while still complying with judicial concepts of due process and fundamental fairness.

The constitutional quagmires that the SEC’s “Fourth Branch” status raise can come in multiple forms.  They range from the question of how the insulation of SEC Commissioners from Presidential control (because they are not removable “at will”) may affect the SEC’s ability to appoint some officials who operate under its aegis, or to function as a powerful vehicle for enforcing a wide range of laws of the United States, to the question of how the SEC can function simultaneously as the enforcer of those laws and the adjudicator of the enforcement actions it decides to bring while still affording due process to those it prosecutes.

The issue currently at the top of the heap is how the SEC’s establishment as an independent agency impacts its ability to operate administrative courts with judges not subject to the control of the President, and we turn to that now.

The Constitutional Issue Raised About the SEC’s Administrative Law Courts

The current constitutional challenges to SEC proceedings flow from the SEC’s increased use of its administrative law courts to hear major law enforcement proceedings.  Although the constitutional issues discussed below might also apply to SEC administrative proceedings of a more traditional type (involving alleged violations of law by SEC-regulated entities), the intrusion on purely executive functions seems most clear when the “executive” action occurring is a prosecution for violation of the law by persons not otherwise subject to SEC regulation.

Stilwell v. SEC and Peixoto v. SEC involve challenges to the constitutionality of threatened and filed proceedings in the SEC’s administrative law court.  In these cases, the plaintiffs seek declaratory relief that their administrative proceedings would violate Article II of the Constitution because the officials administering those proceedings – SEC administrative law judges – are “officers” of the United States and therefore must be reasonably subject to Executive control under Article II.  Plaintiffs argue (i) the SEC ALJs are “officers” of the United States in the constitutional sense; (ii) the ALJs may be removed from their jobs only “for cause” by the SEC; and (iii) the SEC commissioners can be removed by the President only “for cause.”  This arrangement, it is alleged, so diminishes the President’s ability to control the conduct of executive officers that it violates Article II.

The Constitution

Particularly relevant to this issue are the following provisions of the Constitution:

Article  II, Section 1 vests “The executive Power” “in a President of the United States of America.”

Article II, Section 2, in delineating aspects of the “executive Power,” states that the President “shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Court of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.”

Article II, Section 3 states that the Presidentshall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed, and shall Commission all the Officers of the United States.”

The Defense Argument

The validity of the defense argument turns on whether the SEC ALJs are “Officers” or “inferior Officers” of the United States, and, if so, whether the President’s inability to remove them “at will,” or reasonably cause someone else to remove them “at will,” impedes his ability to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.”

Free Enterprise Fund  is the Supreme Court precedent most central to this argument.  In that case, the Court considered a constitutionality challenge to the law enforcement powers of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (“PCAOB”).  The PCAOB was created in the Sarbanes Oxley Act of 2002 as a government organization with powers to adopt and enforce rules governing the public accounting profession, under the oversight of the SEC.  Its five Board Members are appointed by the SEC.  They are not government employees for statutory purposes, but they were acknowledged by all parties to be “Officers of the United States” who exercised “significant authority pursuant to the laws of the United States.”  561 U.S. at 485-86.  They are removable by a formal order of the SEC only “for good cause shown,” subject to judicial review.  Id. at 486.  As noted above, the parties in the case also stipulated that the SEC Commissioners were removable by the President only for “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office.”  Id.  at 487.  The case presented the question whether the layering of “for cause” removal restrictions – limiting the President as to “a principal officer” (the SEC Commissioners) “who is in turn restricted in his ability to remove an inferior officer (the PCAOB Members) – is permissible “even though that inferior officer determines the policy and enforces the laws of the United States.”  Id. at 483-84.

The Court found that the appointments of the PCAOB Members did not violate the Appointments Clause because the SEC is a “Department” within the meaning of that clause, noting that “the common, near-contemporary definition of a ‘department’ as a ‘separate allotment or part of business; a distinct province, in which a class of duties are allotted to a particular person’ is consistent with that result even thought the SEC was created as an independent agency.  Id. at 511.  As a result: “Because the Commission is a freestanding component of the Executive Branch, not subordinate to or contained within any other such component, it constitutes a “Departmen[t]” for the purposes of the Appointments Clause.”

But the Court nevertheless concluded that the PCAOB violated Article II because its members were too insulated from presidential control to allow the President to perform his required executive functions: “We hold that such multilevel protection from removal is contrary to Article II’s vesting of the executive power in the President.  The President cannot “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed” if he cannot oversee the faithfulness of the officers who execute them.  Here, the President cannot remove an officer who enjoys more than one level of good-cause protection, even if the President determines that the officer is neglecting his duties or discharging them improperly.”  Id. at 484.

That raises questions about the SEC’s ALJs.  Under the Administrative Procedure Act, the SEC is responsible for the appointment of the ALJs that preside over its administrative courts.  The SEC is also responsible for their removal.  But it can’t do so “at will.”  5 U.S.C. § 7521 states: “An agency may remove, suspend, reduce in level, reduce in pay, or furlough for 30 days or less an administrative law judge only for good cause established and determined by the [Merit Systems Protection Board] on the record and after opportunity for a hearing before the Board.”  In other words, the SEC’s ALJs are removable by the SEC only after proof of good cause as found by the Merit Systems Protection Board.  In that respect, it appears to be somewhat more difficult for the SEC to remove an ALJ than it is to remove a Member of the PCAOB.

Since no one has yet disputed that SEC Commissioners are removable only for cause, that appears to resolve the issue of whether an ALJ “enjoys more than one level of good-cause protection.”  That would make the dispositive issue whether an SEC ALJ is an “Officer” or an “inferior Officer” of the United States performing executive functions that should be subject to presidential influence.  If he/she is, then by all appearances his/her protection from removal by the President would be “contrary to Article II’s vesting of the executive power in the President” because “[t]he President cannot “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.”

Is an Administrative Law Judge an Officer or Inferior Officer of the United States?

Treatment of ALJs in the Free Enterprise Fund decisions.  So is an ALJ an Officer or inferior Officer of the United States?  The Court in Free Enterprise Fund addressed, but did not decide this issue.  Stating that nothing in its opinion “should be read to cast doubt on the use of what is colloquially known as the civil service system within independent agencies,” Justice Roberts devoted a footnote to the impact of the opinion on administrative law judges:

For similar reasons, our holding does not address that subset of independent agency employees who serve as administrative law judges. . . .  Whether administrative law judges are necessarily “Officers of the United States” is disputed.  [See Landry v. FDIC, 204 F.3d 1125 (D.C. Cir. 2000).]  And unlike members of the Board, many administrative law judges of course perform adjudicative rather than enforcement or policymaking functions. . ., or possess purely recommendatory powers.  The Government below refused to identify either “civil service tenure-protected employees in independent agencies” or administrative law judges as “precedent for the PCAOB….”

Free Enterprise Fund, 561 U.S. at 507 n.10.  The Court did “not address” the issue, but it certainly raised a significant obstacle, seemingly suggesting that if ALJs “perform adjudicative rather than enforcement or policymaking functions” they may be constitutionally okay.

The difficulty of getting ALJs included as “officers” is also reflected in Judge Kavanagh’s dissenting opinion in the D.C. Circuit ruling in which the majority rejected the constitutional challenge to the PCAOB.  See Free Enterprise Fund v. PCAOB, 537 F.3d 667 (D.C. Cir. 2008).  Justice Roberts liberally referred to and incorporated arguments from Judge Kavanagh’s dissent as part of his majority Supreme Court opinion, so Judge Kavanagh’s thoughts could be influential.  Here is what he said on the ALJ question (much of which was tracked by Justice Roberts in his footnote):

[A]dministrative law judges in the independent agencies are removable only for cause at the initiation of the agency that employs them and with approval of the Merit Systems Protection Board, . . . whose members in turn are removable only for cause by the President. . . .  [T]here are good reasons the Board and the United States did not cite ALJs as a precedent.  First, an agency has the choice whether to use ALJs for hearings . . . Congress has not imposed ALJs on the Executive Branch.  Second, many ALJs are employees, not officers.  [See Landry v. FDIC, 204 F.3d 1125, 1132-34 (D.C. Cir. 2000)] (ALJs in FDIC are employees because they possess only recommendatory powers that are subject to de novo review by agency).  Third, ALJs perform only adjudicatory functions that are subject to review by agency officials . . . and that arguably would not be considered “central to the functioning of the Executive Branch” for purposes of the Article II removal precedents. . . .  Nothing in this dissenting opinion is intended to or would affect the status of employees in independent agencies who have congressionally mandated civil service tenure protection or the status of administrative law judges.

537 F.3d 667 at 699 n.8 (dissenting opinion).

The opinion in Landry v. FDIC.  Both Justice Roberts’s Supreme Court opinion and Judge Kavanagh’s D.C. Circuit dissent cite only one case in relation to the ALJ issue: Landry v. FDIC, 204 F.3d 1125 (D.C. Cir. 2000).  Kavanagh cites Landry to support the statement that “many ALJs are employees, not officers” and Roberts cites it for the point that “Whether administrative law judges are necessarily ‘Officers of the United States’ is disputed.” Neither judge is suggesting that the holding in Landry decides the issue completely, but it would be important for someone asserting the SEC ALJs are “officers” to be able to explain why the rationale underlying Landry is not especially helpful in evaluating the status of the SEC ALJs.

Landry involved a challenge to sanctions imposed by the FDIC after it reviewed the decision of an FDIC administrative law judge recommending findings and sanctions under the operative FDIC statute.  Among the grounds for appeal to the D.C. Circuit was the contention that the appointment of the FDIC’s ALJ violated the Appointments Clause of the Constitution, Article II, Section 2, Clause 2: “[The President] … shall appoint … Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.”  Landry contended that an FDIC ALJ was an “inferior Officer” who could be appointed only by the President, the Courts, or a Head of Department, but had been appointed by a federal banking agency, which was not a “Department” in the constitutional sense.

 A majority of the D.C. Circuit panel ruled that the FDIC ALJ was not an inferior officer, but was instead a mere “employee.”  The court noted that “[t]he line between ‘mere’ employees and inferior officers is anything but bright. . . .  In fact, the earliest Appointments Clause cases often employed circular logic, granting officer status to an official based in part upon his appointment by the head of a department.”  Landry, 204. F.3d at 1132 (citations omitted).  The Supreme Court’s statement in Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1, 126 n.162 (1976), that “any appointee exercising significant authority pursuant to the laws of the United States is an ‘Officer of the United States,’” was treated as not especially helpful.  Instead, “ascertaining the test’s real meaning requires a look at the roles of the employees whose status was at issue in other cases.”  Landry, 204 F.3d at 1133.

 The one case deemed “most analogous” was Freytag v. Commissioner, 501 U.S. 868 (1991), in which the Court found that special trial judges (“STJ”) for the Tax Court were indeed “inferior Officers.”  The Landry majority distinguished Freytag, however, because the Freytag Court relied in part on powers of the STJ not matched by the FDIC ALJs: “the authority to render the final decision of the Tax Court in declaratory judgment proceedings and in certain small-amount tax cases.”  Landry, 204 F.3d at 1133.  Because the FDIC ALJ could only render a recommended decision, findings of fact, and conclusions of law, with final decisions reserved to the FDIC, and because the Supreme Court in Freytag “laid exceptional stress on the STJs’ final decisionmaking power” (id. at 1134), the majority found the ALJ was not an “officer” of the United States.

 Judge Randolph concurred in the result based on no prejudice suffered by the appellant, but strongly disagreed on the determination that the ALJ was not an officer of the United States.  He found the FDIC ALJ indistinguishable in material respects from the Tax Court STJ under the reasoning of the Supreme Court in Freytag.  Quoting the Freytag opinion extensively, he argued that the Supreme Court placed no great importance on the limited respects in which the STJs had final authority.  In particular, the mere fact “that an ALJ cannot render a final decision and is subject to the ultimate supervision of the FDIC shows only that the ALJ shares the common characteristic of the ‘inferior Officer,’” that is that “‘inferior’ officers are officers whose work is directed and supervised at some level by others who were appointed by Presidential nomination….”  Landry, 204 F.3d at 1142 (quoting Edmond v. United States, 520 U.S. 651, 663 (1997).

 In the end, the divided opinion in Landry v. FDIC lends some, but limited, support to the notion that an ALJ whose authority is exclusively limited to recommending determinations to be made finally by others may be an “employee” and not an “inferior Officer.”  But the division in the court makes this far from clear.

 The decision in Freytag v. Commissioner.  Since the Landry decision turns on how the disagreeing judges read the Supreme Court decision in Freytag, we should at least understand what the Freytag court decided.

 As noted above, the Freytag case involved the status of special trial judges (formerly known as “commissioners”) appointed by the Tax Court.  The Tax Court is an Article I court created by Congress with judges appointed for limited terms.  Congress authorized the Chief Judge of the Tax Court to appoint STJs to hear specific types of tax cases, some of which could be decided by the STJ but others of which require a recommended decision by the STJ and final determination by a regular judge of the Tax Court.  Freytag’s case was one of those that required review and adoption by a regular judge, and that is what occurred.

 Freytag challenged the validity of the judgment against him in part because the appointment of STJs by the Chief Judge of the Tax Court violated the Appointments Clause.  The Court unanimously rejected this contention, although it was sharply divided on the reasoning.  A majority of five justices reasoned that the STJ was an “inferior Officer” whose appointment was proper because the Tax Court could properly appoint an inferior officer as one of “the Courts of Law” under Article II, Section 2, Clause 2.  The remaining four justices reasoned that the STJ was an “inferior Officer,” but that the Tax Court’s power to make such appoints derived from the fact that it was a Department within the meaning of Article II, Section 2, Clause 2.  All nine justices, therefore, agreed that the STJs were “inferior Officers.”

The reasoning behind that was laid out in the majority opinion.  That opinion rejected the contention set forth by the Commissioner of the IRS that the STJs were “employees” who did no more than assist the regular Tax Court judges in taking evidence and preparing proposed findings and an opinion.  The Court started with the statement in Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1, 126 (1976), that” “Any appointee exercising significant authority pursuant to the laws of the United States is an ‘Officer of the United States,’ and must, therefore, be appointed in the manner prescribed by § 2, cl. 2, of [Article II].”  It went on to reject the argument that STJs are only employees “because they lack authority to enter into a final decision” because that argument “ignores the significance of the duties and discretion that special trial judges possess.”  Freytag, 501 U.S. at 881.  The Court focused on the facts that “the office of special trial judge is ‘established by Law’” and the statute lays out their “duties, salary, and means of appointment for that office” (id.); they “perform more than ministerial tasks” including “tak[ing] testimony, conduct[ing] trials, rul[ing] on the admissibility of evidence, and hav[ing] the power to enforce compliance with discovery orders.”  Id. at 881-82.  And in the course of doing so, they “exercise significant discretion.”  Id. at 882.  These factors were bolstered by others, because “[e]ven if the duties of [STJs] were not as significant as . . . we have found them to be,” there are circumstances where “they exercise independent authority,” and they cannot be “inferior Officers” for some purposes and not others.  See id.

 So, Freytag rejects the argument that officials who “lack authority to enter into a final decision” must be employees and not inferior officers, places great weight on whether a person’s job was created and delineated by statute and involves the exercise of significant discretion, and notes that if this is accompanied by the exercise of “independent authority,” there is no doubt that the official is an inferior officer.

Supreme Court decisions in the military judge cases.  The Supreme Court issued a triumvirate of opinions of relatively recent vintage in cases applying the Appointments Clause to judges presiding over military courts.  See Weiss v. United States, 510 U.S. 163 (1994); Ryder v. United States, 515 U.S. 177 (1995); Edmond v. United States, 520 U.S. 651 (1997).  These cases could be viewed as providing strong support for the view that government officials other than Article III judges who preside over government legal proceedings are to be considered “inferior Officers” of the United States.  (Article III judges almost certainly would be viewed as principal officers.)

Weiss challenged military trial judges who were appointed by the President as officers of the military but never appointed to be judges.  The case proceeded on the “common ground” of the parties, with apparent acquiescence by the Court, that “military judges, because of the authority and responsibilities they possess, act as ‘Officers’ of the United States.”  Weiss, 510 U.S. at 169; see id. at 173 (Buckley, Freytag, and Morrison v. Olson “undoubtedly establish the analytical framework upon which to base the conclusion that a military judge is an ‘officer of the United States’ – a proposition to which both parties agree”).  The Court held that because the appointment as military officers of those serving as judges was consistent with the Appointments Clause, no “reappointment” was required.  The only issue disputed by the justices was how to decide whether the military judges were “inferior Officers” or “principal officers.”  See id. at 182-94 (Souter, J., concurring).

Ryder involved a challenged conviction where the intermediate appellate court, the Coast Guard Court of Military Review, included two civilian judges whose appointments did not comply with the Appointments Clause, and, because they were not military officers, were never appointed to a military office by means consistent with the Appointments clause.  The Court unanimously reversed the decision of the United States Court of Military Appeals (the highest military appellate court) that there were ground to ignore this flaw, and overturned the conviction.  In doing so, the Court agreed that judges serving on the Coast Guard Court of Military Review were officers required to be appointed in accordance with the Appointments Clause.  Significantly, the Court reached this result despite the fact that the intermediate appellate judges in question were subject to review by the higher appellate court, noting that the lower and higher courts applied different standards of review.  Ryder, 515 U.S. at 187-88.

Edmond also involved a challenge to a conviction where the intermediate appellate court (now renamed the Coast Guard Court of Criminal Appeals) included two civilian judges who were assigned to the intermediate court by the Judge Advocate General of the Coast Guard (who also was General Counsel of the Department of Transportation).  After Weiss was decided, the Secretary of Transportation “adopted” the assignments as his own “judicial appointments.”  The Court found no violation of the Appointments Clause because the judges were officers of the Department of Transportation and the power to appoint all such officers was given by statute to the Secretary of Transportation, consistent with the Appointments Clause.  One of petitioner’s challenges was that these judges were “principal officers,” not “inferior officers.”  The Court noted that its “cases have not set forth an exclusive criterion for distinguishing between principal and inferior officers,” and discussed several cases finding other officials to be inferior officers.  Edmond, 520 U.S. at 661.  In response to the argument that these judges exercised “significant authority” on behalf of the United States, the Court that this does not make them principal officers, but draws “the line between officer and non-officer.”  Id. at 662.  The Court concluded they would be “inferior officers” because “[g]enerally speaking, the term ‘inferior officer’ connotes a relationship with some higher ranking officer or officers below the President: whether one is an ‘inferior’ officer depends on whether he has a superior.”  The fact that these judges were subject to administrative oversight by the Judge Advocate General, and could be removed by the Judge Advocate General “without cause,” were strong grounds to show they were subordinates.  Id. at 664.  And the fact that the decisions of the intermediate court were subject to reversal on further appeal, also showed that these judges “have no power to render a final decision on behalf of the United States unless permitted to do so by other executive officers” and are therefore inferior officers.  Id. at 665.  Justice Souter’s concurrence argued that more factors should be considered in determining whether these judges were principal or inferior officers, but in the end agreed “that the judges . . . are inferior officers within the meaning of the Appointments Clause.”  Id. at666-70 (Souter, J., concurring).

The SEC’s ALJs exercise powers of the government and have significant discretion in adjudicating enforcement proceedings involving major sanctions.  Although they are subject to review by the SEC, the cases seem to make it crystal clear that merely being subject to reversal does not render an inferior officer a non-officer.  That their decisions can be reversed is a sign that they are not “principal officers,” but has little bearing on whether they are inferior ones.  To the contrary, in the words of Justice Scalia in Edmond, “we think it evident that ‘inferior officers’ are officers whose work is directed and supervised at some level by others who were appointed by presidential nomination with the advice and consent of the Senate.”  Edmond, 520 U.S. at 663.

 Beyond the case law.  This certainly has not been an exhaustive review of all cases discussing the scope of “inferior Officers.”  But it seems sufficient to conclude that the characterization of the SEC ALJs as inferior officers, on the one hand, or employees, on the other, is not easily made based solely on the cases.  One question to ask is whether there are other authorities addressing the issue that might be helpful.  It turns out that the Office of Legal Counsel of the Department of Justice (OLC) has on several occasions considered how to determine whether certain officials are officers of the United States.  Might these analyses be useful?

 In April 2007, the OLC produced its most recent analysis, a Memorandum Opinion for the General Counsels of the Executive Branch entitled Officers of the United States Within the Meaning of the Appointments Clause (Apr. 16, 2007) (“OLC April 2007 Opinion”).  A copy of that document can be found here: Officers of the United States Within the Meaning of the Appointments Clause – OLC Opinion.  With extensive analysis, the OLC concluded:

 We conclude that any position having the two essential characteristics of a federal “office” is subject to the Appointments Clause.  That is, a position, however labeled, is in fact a federal office if (1) it is invested by legal authority with a portion of the sovereign powers of the federal Government, and (2) it is “continuing.”  A person who would hold such a position must be properly made an “Officer[ ] of the United States” by being appointed pursuant to the procedures specified in the Appointments Clause.

 OLC April 2007 Opinion at 1.

The crux of the OLC analysis is that a person is a federal officer if he or she has a continuing position established by law that involves the application of the sovereign powers of the federal government.  That would be in contrast to a person whose position is “purely advisory” or who “provides goods and services.”  Id.  at 4.  If their official positions involve “the wielding of delegated sovereign authority,” they hold an office, and are officers.  Id. at 7.  Citing historic authorities, the OLC says: “Officers, thus, were persons holding sovereign authority delegated from the King that enabled them in conducting the affairs of government to affect the people “against [their] will, and without [their] leave.”  Id.  at 8.  An influential 19th century treatise cited by the OLC summarized a public office as follows:  “A public office is the right, authority and duty, created and conferred by law, by which for a given period, either fixed by law or enduring at the pleasure of the creating power, an individual is invested with some portion of the sovereign functions of government, to be exercised by him for the benefit of the public. The individual so invested is a public officer.”  Id. at 10 (citing F. Mechem, A Treatise on the Law of Public Offices and Officers § 1, at 1-2 (1890)).

Critically, the OLC emphasizes that “‘independent discretion’ is not a necessary attribute of delegated sovereign authority.”  Id. at 17.  “[T]reating discretion as necessary for the existence of an office conflicts with the original understanding of ‘office,’ early practice, and early precedents.”  Id. at 18.  Nor is the exercise of “independent” authority needed:  “If it is not necessary to the existence of delegated sovereign authority (and thus to the existence of an office) that a position include the exercise of discretion, all the more is it not necessary that a position include some sort of ‘independent’ discretion in carrying out sovereign functions.  The question for purposes of this first element is simply whether a position possesses delegated sovereign authority to act in the first instance, whether or not that act may be subject to direction or review by superior officers.”  Id.

 This OLC opinion, coupled with the Supreme Court decisions in Freytag and Edmond, provides heavy artillery in support of the argument that the SEC ALJs are “inferior Officers” under the Appointments Clause.  They surely are “invested by legal authority with a portion of the sovereign powers of the federal Government.”  They wield governmental power to issue subpoenas and compel testimony.  They determine what evidence should be included in the record, and decide whether portions of the case should proceed to trial or not.  They can sanction lawyers.  In short, they have all the powers of a judge in their courtrooms, and those powers are derived from the sovereign.  They hold “continuing” positions and can only be removed for cause.  They do not appear distinguishable from military judges, and are barely distinguishable from Tax Court special trial judges, or for that matter, from U.S. magistrates.

Do the SEC’s Administrative Law Judges Perform Executive Functions?

Since  the constitutionality issue in Free Enterprise Fund turned on the inability of the President to exercise sufficient influence over the PCAOB’s executive functions, could the SEC’s ALJs be approved on the theory that they do not perform executive functions?  After all, they are serving in a traditional adjudicative capacity, and Justice Roberts did note in his footnote that “unlike members of the Board, many administrative law judges of course perform adjudicative rather than enforcement or policymaking functions. . ..”  Free Enterprise Fund, 561 U.S. at 507 n.10.

Surely that comment provides the opening for an argument, but it is difficult to conceive of the Court concluding that the SEC’s ALJs are not functioning as Executive officers even though they perform key functions in what the Court concluded was an Executive Department.  When the Court decided the Freytag case, it left open whether a “principal agenc[y], such as . . . the Securities and Exchange Commission” is a “Department” under the Appointments Clause.  Freytag, 501 U.S. at 887 n.4.  But with that issue now resolved with the ruling that it is such a Department, it is difficult to create an argument that statutory judges performing adjudicative functions within that Department, just as the special trial judges functioned within the Treasury Department, should be treated as outside of the Executive power.  Likewise, the military court triumvirate of cases all involved officers performing adjudicative functions as part of an arm of the Executive, and it was never suggested that this impacted the importance of their Executive roles.

Because the SEC’s ALJs perform their adjudicative functions as a critical part of executing the SEC’s overall law enforcement authority, which plainly must be considered an executive function, it seems unlikely that the Supreme Court will decide that the adjudicative nature of their functions alone places them outside of the Article II mandate that it is the President who must “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.”

Conclusion

 The constitutional challenges raised in the Stilwell and Peixoto cases are far from makeweight.  The Supreme Court decision in Free Enterprise Fund coupled with the SEC’s status as an “independent agency” with Commissioners not subject to removal by the President other than “for cause” seem to make these cases come down to a single issue: are the SEC’s administrative law judges “officers” of the United States performing Executive functions.  A significant line of Supreme Court cases provides apparent support for finding these officials to be “inferior Officers” within the meaning of that clause.  There is also apparent support for this contention from the Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel opinion addressing the issue of how to decide when a person is an “inferior Officer.”  And the determination that the SEC is to be treated as “a freestanding component of the Executive Branch” leaves little room to conclude that ALJs working for the SEC are not performing Executive functions.

 To be sure, the majority opinion of the D.C. Circuit in Landry, and the footnotes of Justice Roberts and Judge Kavanagh in the Free Enterprise Fund cases noting this to be an open issue, make it clear this is not a slam dunk.  But there can be no doubt that the constitutional issues raised are real and serious, and it seems likely that the Supreme Court will be deciding them relatively soon.

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When we next delve into SEC constitutional issues, which may take awhile, we will address why it is that an “independent agency” can exercise enormous power in executing the law through enforcement proceedings even though Article II of the Constitution places the power to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed” solely in the hands of a unitary Executive.

 Straight Arrow

 December 2, 2014

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