administrative law

The World of Financial Regulation Gets Weird…Again

There’s yet more strangeness afoot in the world of financial regulation.  No, it’s not the CFPB this time.  It’s the generally more staid Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).  Earlier this week, the Department of Justice weighed in on Lucia v. SEC, a case challenging the constitutionality of the SEC’s in-house judges, known as Administrative Law Judges (ALJs).  What is strange is that the DOJ sided with Raymond Lucia and against the SEC.  Seemingly in response, the SEC took action and ratified the appointment of its ALJs, a move it had been resisting for some time. 

The case is currently with the Supreme Court where the Court is considering whether it will hear and decide the matter.  The question is whether ALJs are “mere employees” or are instead “inferior officers.”  If the latter, their appointment is subject to the appointments clause in the Constitution, which permits Congress to “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.”  Since the process for appointing ALJs has (until recently) not been done by any of these, if they are indeed inferior officers, their appointment would be unconstitutional. 

Cato has filed an amicus brief in support of Lucia.  Given the great discretion that ALJs wield – hearing and ruling on both the admissibility and credibility of evidence, presiding over hearings, and issuing opinions – it is strange to say they are not inferior officers.  Resting on the finality of the decisions alone seems insufficient.  And indeed in another case arguing the same issue, whether SEC ALJs are inferior officers, a federal appeals court in Colorado ruled that they are.  Since there is now a circuit split, with appeals courts in two circuits issuing opposite rulings, it seems likely the Supreme Court will hear the case to decide the issue.

The appeal to the Supreme Court is of a decision by the federal court of appeals in D.C., which ruled that, because ALJs’ opinions are not final and can be reviewed by the SEC commissioners, the ALJs are not in fact inferior officers.

The problem for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals is that it already ruled on this question.  In Landry v. FDIC, the D.C. Circuit found that ALJs at the FDIC are not inferior officers because their opinions are not final.  This is the case on which the D.C. Circuit relied in Lucia.  Landry was also appealed to the Supreme Court, but the Court did not take it up. 

Speaking of Landry. When Landry was pending before the Supreme Court, just as Lucia is now, the Department of Justice weighed in on that case, just as it did recently in Lucia.  But that time, the DOJ sided with the FDIC, arguing that the lack of finality in ALJ decisions makes them mere employees and not inferior officers.  Exactly the opposite of what DOJ is now arguing in Lucia.

Agencies Should Not Be Allowed to Ambiguously Interpret Their Ambiguous Interpretations

Arlen and Cindy Foster are farmers in Miner County, South Dakota. Arlen’s grandfather bought the land over a century ago, and the family has been working it ever since. In 1936, Arlen’s father planted a tree belt on the south end of the farm as a conservation measure. As the weather warms, the snow around the tree belt melts and the water flows into the circular depression, called a “prairie pothole” (circled in blue on the lower right hand part of the picture). Unfortunately for the Fosters, the federal government has declared that the shallow depression is a protected wetland, and thus denied them the productive use of that portion of their land. 

The Fosters' farm.

Department of Agriculture regulations define what qualifies as a wetland, but remain vague on some of the details. The regulations say that, if a parcel’s wetland status can’t be determined due to alteration of the vegetation (such as through filling or tilling the land), a similar parcel from the “local area” will be chosen to act as a proxy. “Local area” is never defined, but a 2010 internal field circular refers agency officials to an Army Corps of Engineers manual that uses the parallel language “adjacent vegetation.” Here, the agency interpreted “local area” to refer to an area of almost 11,000 square miles and then selected proxy site some 33 miles from the Fosters’ farm. That proxy site supports wetland vegetation, so the Fosters’ land was also declared a protected wetland.

Big Win for MetLife and Other SIFIs

MetLife notched an important win this week, securing a ruling from a federal court that it is not a systemically important financial institution (SIFI) under Dodd-Frank. Like much of the Dodd-Frank Act, the SIFI designation has been controversial since its introduction in 2010. The designation is intended to help the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC, another Dodd-Frank creation) to monitor companies whose demise could destabilize the country’s financial system. Putting aside the question of whether a group of regulators in Washington could see and stop a crisis more quickly than those in the trenches at the nation’s financial giants, the designation triggers a host of regulatory requirements that many companies would prefer to avoid. 

One of the most controversial aspects of the SIFI designation is its black box nature. There is no publicly available SIFI check-list. The rationale for following a more principles- than rules-based approach may be that the definition needs to remain flexible. Companies may be motivated to avoid the letter of such a rules-based approach without avoiding the spirit, leaving FSOC without the ability to monitor a company that, despite not triggering the SIFI designation, still poses a risk to the financial system. But this has left companies in a bind. The SIFI designation has real and substantial ramifications for any company that triggers it, but companies have been unable both to avoid designation and to challenge designation once applied.  It’s hard to argue that you don’t fit a certain definition if you don’t know what the definition is.

Of course, not all companies want to avoid SIFI status. Although some have argued that FSOC and other aspects of Dodd-Frank will prevent future bailouts, it seems naïve to think that the government could designate a company as a risk to the entire financial system and then sit idly by as it burns.  SIFI designation is a wink and a nod, all but assuring government support if the designated company founders in rocky times.

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