In a memo dated June 5, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has ended the practice by which the Department of Justice earmarks legal settlement funds for non-governmental third-party groups that were neither victims nor parties to the lawsuit. This is terrific news and a major step forward in respecting both the constitutional separation of powers and the private rights that litigation is meant to vindicate.
The use of surplus or unclaimed settlement money for causes allegedly similar to those served by the litigation (“cy près,” in the legal jargon) is not itself new. In recent years, however, law enforcers at both state and federal levels have developed it as a way to direct funds to a wide variety of causes, from private charities and advocacy groups to legal aid programs, law schools, and an assortment of other causes that legislatures and their appropriations committees have shown no interest in funding.
Not surprisingly, officials tend to designate as beneficiaries recipients they find ideologically congenial. “With control over big money flows,” as I noted in a piece two years ago, “smart AGs can populate a political landscape with grateful allies.” The Obama administration came under justified criticism for using the mortgage settlement to funnel tens of millions of dollars to “housing counseling” often carried on by left-leaning community-organizing groups.
The problems with this practice begin at the level of constitutional structure. It is the legislative branch, not some combination of executive and judiciary in connivance, that is supposed to wield exclusive power to appropriate public moneys, and moneys extracted by government enforcement and not otherwise owned (as by parties or victims) are a species of public moneys. In the recent D.C. Circuit decision of Keepseagle v. Perdue, arising from the settlement of a lawsuit by Indians shortchanged by agriculture programs, Judge Janice Rogers Brown wrote a slashing and readable separation-of-powers critique of the practice in her dissent (the panel majority dismissed the issue as having been raised too late.)
There are other constitutional issues at stake as well. Cato has argued as amicus, in cases involving settlements by Facebook and Duracell, that the use of cy près endangers the constitutional rights of individual members in class litigation, both as to due process rights protected by the Fifth Amendment and to First Amendment rights of expression (since the practice uses members’ money to advance causes with which they may strongly disagree). Courts including the Eighth Circuit have voiced misgivings as well, and Chief Justice John Roberts has flagged the constitutional status of cy près as an issue that could soon be ripe for Supreme Court consideration. Members of Congress led by Rep. Robert Goodlatte (R-Va.) have proposed the Stop Settlement Slush Funds Act (H.R. 732), and as I note in a chapter of the new Cato Handbook for Policymakers, state lawmakers in places like New Mexico have pursued similar ideas.
A follow-up question is whether the Department of Justice will follow the same logic by moving against the diversion of funds from entered judgments (as distinct from future settlements) to outside groups, as in the Keepseagle case. Logically, there is good reason for it to pursue this further step.
In the mean time, we should applaud Attorney General Jeff Sessions for one of the big wins for constitutional principle so far in the new administration.