SCOTUS: Maybe We Broke Securities Law, But Don’t Ask Us To Fix It

Today the Supreme Court missed an opportunity to undo one of its worst corporate-law mistakes of modern times, its 1988 decision in Basic, Inc., v. Levinson that lawyers can file class-action suits on behalf of investors without proving class members’ actual reliance on allegedly fraudulent statements, by presuming the price of the stock was affected. (Colleague Andrew Grossman covered the oral argument in Halliburton v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc. in this space in March.)

In the narrower sense, the Court did unanimously grant relief to defendant Halliburton by recognizing its right to offer proof at an earlier stage that its claimed misstatement had not affected the price of its stock. That’s welcome, and shows that the Court recognizes – maybe even unanimously recognizes – that the current class-action mechanism operates unfairly to pressure defendants to settle at the certification stage, and needs procedural overhaul aimed at fixing that. 

Unfortunately, a six-member majority led by Chief Justice Roberts invoked the doctrine of stare decisis to reaffirm its general holding in Basic, reasoning that it will not inquire whether earlier precedents are wrong, just whether they are so extra-super-wrong as to stand out from the usual run of wrong precedent.  Chief Justice Roberts’s majority opinion makes much of the idea that securities law is statutory and that Congress could therefore alter matters if it chose.

But Justice Thomas, writing in concurrence for himself and Justices Scalia and Alito, has the better logic when he points out that Basic v. Levinson never emerged from an engagement with statutory text at all – it was a product of the Court’s now-discredited “implied private rights of action” period, in which Justices for a while took it upon themselves to invent new civil causes of action from whole cloth. And as with the so-called Pottery Barn rule in government (you break it, you own it) the Court might want to consider taking responsibility for undoing messes that are entirely of its own making.