Category Archives: politics

Can a President obstruct Justice?

Speculation about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has turned toward obstruction of justice—specifically, whether President Trump can be criminally prosecuted for firing James Comey as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation or for earlier asking Mr. Comey to go easy on onetime national security adviser Mike Flynn. The answer is no. The Constitution forbids Congress to criminalize such conduct by a president, and applying existing statutes in such a manner would violate the separation of powers.

The Constitution creates three coequal branches of government, and no branch may exercise its authority in a manner that would negate or fundamentally undercut the power of another. The power to appoint and remove high-level executive-branch officers, such as the FBI director, is a core aspect of the president’s executive authority. It is the principal means by which a president disciplines the exercise of the executive power the Constitution vests in him.

The same is true of Mr. Trump’s request, as purported by Mr. Comey: “I hope you can see your way clear . . . to letting Flynn go.” The FBI director wields core presidential powers when conducting an investigation, and the president is entirely within his rights to inquire about, and to direct, such investigations. The director is free to ignore the president’s inquiries or directions and risk dismissal, or to resign if he believes the president is wrong. Such officials serve at the president’s pleasure and have no right to be free of such dilemmas.

A law criminalizing the president’s removal of an officer for a nefarious motive, or the application of a general law in that way, would be unconstitutional even if the president’s action interferes with a criminal investigation. Such a constraint would subject every exercise of presidential discretion to congressional sanction and judicial review. That would vitiate the executive branch’s coequal status and, when combined with Congress’s impeachment power, establish legislative supremacy—a result the Framers particularly feared.

Mr. Trump’s critics claim that subjecting the president’s actions to scrutiny as potential obstructions of justice is simply a matter of asking judges to do what they do every day in other contexts—determine the purpose or intent behind an action. That is also wrong. The president is not only an individual, but head of the executive branch. Separating his motives between public interests and personal ones—partisan, financial or otherwise—would require the courts to delve into matters that are inherently political. Under Supreme Court precedent stretching back to Marbury v. Madison (1803), the judiciary has no power to do so. And lawmakers enjoy an analogous immunity under the Speech and Debate Clause.

The president’s independence from the other branches does not merely support “energy” in the chief executive, as the Framers intended. It also ensures that he, and he alone, is politically accountable for his subordinates’ conduct. If officials as critical to the executive branch’s core functions as the FBI director could determine whom and how to investigate free from presidential supervision, they would wield the most awesome powers of government with no political accountability. History has demonstrated that even when subject to presidential authority, the FBI director can become a power unto himself—as J. Edgar Hoover was for decades, severely damaging civil liberties.

There are limits to presidential power. The Constitution requires the Senate’s consent for appointment of the highest-level executive-branch officers—a critical check on presidential power. The Supreme Court has upheld statutory limits—although never involving criminal sanction—on the removal of certain kinds of officials. But the decision to fire principal executive-branch officers like the FBI director remains within the president’s discretion. A sitting president can also be subjected to civil lawsuits—but only in a carefully circumscribed fashion, to avoid impeding his ability to discharge the powers of his office.

The ultimate check on presidential power is impeachment. Even though Mr. Trump cannot have violated criminal law in dismissing Mr. Comey, if a majority of representatives believe he acted improperly or corruptly, they are free to impeach him. If two-thirds of senators agree, they can remove him from office. Congress would then be politically accountable for its action. Such is the genius of our Constitution’s checks and balances.

None of this is to suggest the president has absolute immunity from criminal obstruction-of-justice laws. He simply cannot be prosecuted for an otherwise lawful exercise of his constitutional powers. The cases of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton —the latter impeached, and the former nearly so, for obstruction of justice—have contributed to today’s confusion. These were not criminal charges but articulations of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” the constitutional standard for impeachment.

And in neither case was the accusation based on the president’s exercise of his lawful constitutional powers. If a president authorizes the bribery of a witness to suppress truthful testimony, as Nixon was accused of doing, he can be said to have obstructed justice. Likewise if a president asks a potential witness to commit perjury in a judicial action having nothing to do with the exercise of his office, as Mr. Clinton was accused of doing.

Although neither man could have been prosecuted while in office without his consent, either could have been after leaving office. That’s why President Ford pardoned Nixon—to avoid the spectacle and poisonous political atmosphere of a criminal trial. In Mr. Trump’s case, by contrast, the president exercised the power to fire an executive-branch official whom he may dismiss for any reason, good or bad, or for no reason at all. To construe that as a crime would unravel America’s entire constitutional structure.

Messrs. Rivkin and Casey practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. They served in the White House Counsel’s office and Justice Department in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/can-a-president-obstruct-justice-1512938781

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Mulvaney Can Undo Cordray’s Legacy

When Richard Cordray attempted to install his chief of staff as acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, his evident aim was to buy enough time to cement his legacy—particularly a just-finalized rule that the agency expects will wipe out half or more of the short-term lending industry. On Tuesday a federal judge thwarted Mr. Cordray, holding that President Trump acted within his authority by appointing Mick Mulvaney to moonlight as acting CFPB director while continuing to lead the Office of Management and Budget.

On his first day at the bureau, Mr. Mulvaney put a freeze on new rules and guidance. But that doesn’t solve the problem of the payday-lender rule. Mr. Mulvaney acknowledged that he cannot simply recall rules that have already gone out the door. Repealing a final rule typically requires restarting the rule-making process, which can take years to complete.

But Mr. Mulvaney can stop the payday-lender rule by putting on his OMB hat and invoking the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980. That law is generally thought of as—actually, strike that. Nobody ever thinks about the Paperwork Reduction Act. It has about as much currency in Washington as the Filled Cheese Act of 1896.

The PRA, which was purportedly strengthened in 1995, was an effort to address a real problem. Federal agencies are eager to impose paperwork burdens on citizens and businesses. It costs an agency almost nothing to impose a new record-keeping requirement or reporting mandate. The expense falls on those required to carry it out.

The obvious solution was to put agencies on a paperwork budget and force them to internalize the costs they foist on the public. To ensure that agencies don’t evade that responsibility, the PRA established robust centralized oversight in the Office of Management and Budget, which is part of the White House. Every “information collection request” issued or imposed by a federal agency must be approved by OMB. That includes government forms as well as requirements that private parties collect information. If OMB disapproves a request, the agency cannot enforce it.

In practice, however, the PRA doesn’t have much effect. Disapprovals from OMB are exceedingly rare. In part, that’s because most agencies are subject to presidential control, rendering the act superfluous—if the White House opposes a regulatory proposal, it can simply instruct the agency to drop or amend it. By the time PRA review rolls around, the White House has already had its say.

Then there are the independent agencies insulated from presidential control, such as the Federal Communications Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission and most other financial regulators. The PRA empowers them to overrule a disapproval by majority vote. The CFPB was designed to be an independent agency, but unlike the others it has a single director. The PRA limits the ability to overrule to “an independent regulatory agency which is administered by two or more members.” So OMB can disapprove any action by the bureau that imposes unnecessary or excessive paperwork burdens, without fear of being overruled.

Mr. Mulvaney should exercise that power. Every single provision of the short-term lending rule is structured around information collection requests subject to the PRA. The rule’s central requirement is that lenders determine a borrower’s ability to repay by demanding financial information from the borrower, verifying it, and then recording the result of various calculations. Each step is its own paperwork burden.

Whether or not the agency can ultimately justify its regulatory approach—and we have our doubts—it has to do its homework under the PRA. That includes accurately assessing costs, considering the need for and utility of each individual paperwork requirement, balancing the costs and benefits, and minimizing collection burdens. The bureau’s final rule differs substantially from its initial proposal, but the agency made little attempt to account for changes in paperwork burden, as the PRA requires it to do. Nor did it engage with the detailed criticisms of its analysis of the proposal’s costs. The three-page analysis published with the final rule can only be described as Mr. Cordray—perhaps unaware of the bureau’s unique status under the PRA—thumbing his nose at OMB and the White House.

That is reason enough to disapprove the rule and send the CFPB back to the drawing board. It would also signal that the Trump administration actually intends to enforce the PRA—to the point that it will halt a major regulation to ensure compliance. That should prompt other agencies to pay attention to paperwork burdens.

Messrs. Rivkin and Grossman practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. Mr. Rivkin served at the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office. Mr. Grossman is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/mulvaney-can-unravel-cordrays-legacy-1512086936

The Iran Deal Violates U.S. Law

Obama let Tehran get into the medical-isotope business, contrary to the intent of Congress.

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and James L. Connaughton

Oct. 12, 2017, in the Wall Street Journal

As President Trump decides whether to certify his predecessor’s nuclear deal with Iran, here’s another wrinkle he should keep in mind: The deal’s implementation violates federal law, namely the American Medical Isotopes Production Act of 2012.

That statute seeks to end the nuclear-proliferation risk associated with foreign production of radioactive substances for medical use using weapons-grade highly enriched uranium. U.S. doctors use a molybdenum isotope, moly-99, in 20 million procedures annually to detect early cancer, heart disease and other lethal illnesses. But the U.S. has no domestic production capability, relying instead on foreign suppliers who obtain the necessary highly enriched uranium from the U.S. government.

In enacting the 2012 law, Congress sought to end exports of highly enriched uranium while ramping up sufficient domestic production of moly-99 to satisfy U.S. needs. Since America uses roughly half of the world’s moly-99, robust U.S. production would cramp the ability of foreign isotope suppliers to control the market and sell their wares globally.

Under the 2012 law, the National Nuclear Security Administration is supposed to implement programs to encourage U.S. entrepreneurs to develop ways of making moly-99 without using highly enriched uranium, with the goal of making enough of it to justify permanently ending U.S. exports of highly enriched uranium. The Obama administration conspicuously failed to fulfill the law’s requirements. Moly-99 is not being produced in the U.S. and the U.S. government continues to export weapons-grade uranium overseas.

The Iran deal makes matters worse. It specifically permits Tehran an unlimited right to generate highly enriched uranium for use in medical isotope production. Iran is free to join with other producers to control supply and price. Earlier this year Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s former lead nuclear negotiator and now head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, declared Iran’s intention to become a major supplier of medical isotopes. Most significantly, the Iran deal’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action commits the U.S. and other parties to assist Iranian medical isotope development with technology transfer, project finance, export credits and other forms of investment. The European Union has established a joint nuclear cooperation working group with Iran.

The U.S. cannot in good faith implement these obligations without evading its obligation under the American Medical Isotopes Production Act to curtail such foreign medical isotope production. Under U.S. law, there is no question which obligation prevails. The Obama administration, knowing the Senate would never ratify the JCPOA as a treaty, made it an “executive agreement” instead. Such agreements can have the force of law, but under our Constitution the president cannot unilaterally repeal a statute. It’s another reason the administration should declare the Iran deal null and void.

Mr. Rivkin, a Washington-based constitutional lawyer, served at the Justice Department and White House Counsel’s Office in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. Mr. Connaughton served as chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, 2001-09.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-iran-deal-violates-u-s-law-1507847288

The Justices Lay Down the Law

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey

June 27, 2017, in the Wall Street Journal

In one of the last decisions of its term, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a clear rebuke to politicized lower courts. The justices’ unanimous ruling in Trump v. International Refugee Assistance Project upholds both the integrity of the judiciary and the Supreme Court’s own authority.

The case came to the justices from two federal appellate courts. They had upheld trial judges’ orders halting enforcement of President Trump’s “travel ban” executive order, which temporarily limits entry to the U.S. by nationals from six countries. The court will hear the appeal on the merits in October. On Tuesday it held unanimously that the executive order can be immediately enforced, with narrow exceptions, until they address the merits of these cases in the fall.

The challenges to the order claimed it violated the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom and exceeded the president’s authority under immigration law. Both the substance and tone of these decisions created an unmistakable impression that a portion of the judiciary has joined the anti-Trump “resistance.” Not only did the lower-court judges defy clear and binding Supreme Court precedent, they based much of their legal analysis, incredibly, on Candidate Trump’s campaign rhetoric.

The high court didn’t rule entirely in the administration’s favor. By a 6-3 vote, with Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch dissenting, it held that the individuals who originally challenged the order could continue to do so, as could a carefully defined class of “similarly situated” persons with “close familial” relationships to individuals in the United States, along with institutions that can show a “formal, documented, and formed in the ordinary course” relationship to a U.S. entity.

That, the court specifically cautioned, is not an invitation for evasion by immigration advocates: “For example, a nonprofit group devoted to immigration issues may not contact foreign nationals from the designated countries, add them to client lists, and then secure their entry by claiming injury from their exclusion.”

That exception, Justice Thomas noted for the dissenters, was a “compromise”—most likely the product of Chief Justice John Roberts’s effort to achieve a unanimous decision. Given the circumstances, this was a good outcome. It lends the imprimatur of the full court to the rebuke of the lower courts, and avoids the kind of partisan split that prevailed in both the Fourth and Ninth Circuit Courts of Appeals. All nine justices are also now on record supporting the proposition that the vast majority of foreign nationals cannot claim a constitutional right to enter the United States.

When the court reviews the merits of the case in the fall, however, such considerations will be out of place. While courts can adjudicate cases involving immigration and other foreign affairs issues, judicial engagement in this space is fundamentally different than in domestic affairs. In an area of decision-making that involves both institutional knowledge of international affairs and continuous access to classified information, great deference is in order from the courts. If the courts wade into this area, they would undermine both national security and respect for the judiciary. The perception that judging is swayed by political or ideological considerations would be particularly calamitous in this area. Better a 5-4 decision articulating this view clearly than a unanimous but equivocal one.

The odds of a clear outcome are good. As Justice Thomas pointed out, his colleagues’ “implicit conclusion” is that the administration is likely to prevail on the merits. The high court’s own precedent in this area is clear. Nonresident aliens have no constitutional right to enter the U.S. When denying entry, the president need only provide a “facially legitimate and bona fide” justification. As the court held in Kleindienst v. Mandel (1972), once that justification is established, there is no further inquiry or balancing for the courts to make.

Any other decision would be both inconsistent with the court’s precedent and injurious to the Constitution’s separation of powers. It would also compromise the president’s ability to defend the nation at home and abroad and cause grave harm to the judicial branch in maintaining its own critical constitutional role.

Messrs. Rivkin and Casey practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-justices-lay-down-the-law-1498604382

‘You’re Fired,’ Trump Should Tell Richard Cordray

Under a dubious statute, the CFPB head can be dismissed only for cause—but there’s plenty of it.

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Andrew M. Grossman

April 13, 2017, in the Wall Street Journal

The greatest mystery in Washington involves not Russian spies or wiretaps but Richard Cordray’s continued employment as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. In the face of President Trump’s mandate for change, Mr. Cordray continues the Obama administration’s regulatory crusade against lenders, blocking access to the credit that supports so many small businesses and so much consumer spending.

Why would a president who made a TV show out of firing underlings now suffer a subordinate who refuses to get with the pro-growth agenda he campaigned on? If reports from the West Wing are to be believed, Mr. Trump’s unusual timidity is the result of overcautious legal and political advice.

Mr. Cordray is insulated from presidential control by a New Deal-era innovation: a statutory clause that allows the president to fire an independent agency head only “for cause,” meaning “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office.” In October a three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia struck down that restriction an infringement of the president’s constitutional authority to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”

When Congress created the CFPB by passing the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, Judge Brett Kavanaugh explained, it broke with decades of historical practice. Generally the power of independent agencies is diffused among multiple commissioners or directors so as to reduce the risk of abuse. Unless he can be fired, Mr. Cordray, as the sole director of the CFPB, wields more unilateral power than any government official save the president.

The panel’s decision, however, was set aside in February when the full 11-judge court voted to rehear the case. White House lawyers are reportedly waiting to see how the litigation unfolds—a process that could go well past the end of Mr. Cordray’s term in mid-2018.

But it is a mistake to regard the twists and turns of that appeal as a reason to give Mr. Cordray a reprieve. Whatever the D.C. Circuit ultimately decides, no one disputes that the president may dismiss the CFPB director for cause. And the evidence is ample to support firing Mr. Cordray, on all three grounds permitted under law:

Inefficiency. Regulation, the Supreme Court has recognized, should seek to maximize economic efficiency through cost-benefit analysis. Yet the CFPB has pursued an agenda at odds with any clear-eyed view of economic growth and efficiency.

Its rules have made community banks and credit unions more reluctant to issue mortgages, particularly in rural areas, and accelerated consolidation of the industry, reducing competition. Its regulations have limited access to checking accounts, credit cards and other financial products, driving vulnerable Americans to depend on riskier sources of financial services and credit. The agency has even worse policies in the works, such as limits on consumer arbitration and payday lending.

Taken as a whole, the CFPB’s heavy-handed approach to regulation and enforcement has driven up the cost of borrowing, to the detriment of consumers and small businesses.

More prosaically, Mr. Cordray’s CFPB has botched basic administrative procedures meant to ensure efficiency in regulation. About a third of its rules were finalized before being published in the agency’s Unified Agenda, depriving the public of valuable notice and frustrating the regulatory review process. That haste has also led to serious errors: About a quarter of the CFPB’s rules have required correction after being finalized. Further, Mr. Cordray has specifically embraced “regulation through enforcement,” which forgoes orderly rule making entirely in favor of imposing penalties for newly contrived “violations.” This is no way to run a financial watchdog.

• Neglect of duty. Mr. Cordray allowed tens of millions of dollars in cost overruns to pile up for a lavish renovation of the CFPB’s Washington headquarters.

The agency also missed the major consumer-finance scandal of the past decade. It ignored years of complaints about an epidemic of unauthorized customer accounts at Wells Fargo . The CFPB galloped in to exact a penalty only after an investigation by California officials and other regulators was complete.

Malfeasance. What was the CFPB doing all that time? The bureau, it turns out, had spread its resources too thin, focusing on alleged discrimination in auto-dealer lending—an area that Congress specifically excluded from its purview. Not only did the agency run roughshod over that limitation, but its statistical analysis relied on dubious methods such as guessing borrowers’ race based on their surnames.

No such guesswork was required for the Merit Systems Protection Board and Government Accountability Office to find that the CFPB itself had become a hotbed of race and sex discrimination. As early as 2013, a report by Deloitte Consulting revealed that the agency’s internal performance reviews were biased against minority employees, many of whom also reported discrimination at the agency. Years later, claims of discrimination persist, particularly among black employees. Mr. Cordray failed to resolve these issues even years after initial reports.

Any of these things would be sufficient to dismiss Mr. Cordray for cause. All of them together make it necessary to do so.

If Mr. Cordray were to challenge his firing, we have little doubt the courts would support Mr. Trump. Assuming the courts even agreed that they have the power to review a presidential finding of cause for dismissal—which is far from established—they would still grant it substantial deference. The president would prevail, so long as he has documented his findings, explained his reasoning, and satisfied any due-process concerns by affording Mr. Cordray an opportunity to respond.

As far as Mr. Cordray is concerned, no further caution is required. What the president needs is resolve, and his famous TV catchphrase.

Messrs. Rivkin and Grossman practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/youre-fired-trump-should-tell-richard-cordray-1492124207

What Kind of a Judge Is Neil Gorsuch?

By DAVID B. RIVKIN JR. and ANDREW M. GROSSMAN

The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 31, 2017 

Judge Neil Gorsuch, President Trump ’s nominee to succeed Justice Antonin Scalia, is a native Coloradan and avid outdoorsman. He clerked for a federal appellate judge and two Supreme Court justices and spent a decade practicing law before his appointment in 2006, at age 39, to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In the decade since, he has written some 850 opinions.

The way to take a judge’s measure is to read his opinions, and so we set out to review Judge Gorsuch’s. It was not an arduous task, for his prose is unusually engaging—think Scalia, with none of the abrasiveness. Justice Elena Kagan has declared herself a fan of his writing style. The only difficulty in summarizing Judge Gorsuch’s output is the compulsion to quote, at length, from so many of his opinions.

One opens this way: “Haunted houses may be full of ghosts, goblins, and guillotines, but it’s their more prosaic features that pose the real danger. Tyler Hodges found that out when an evening shift working the ticket booth ended with him plummeting down an elevator shaft.” The case, by the way, was a prosaic dispute between insurers. Another opinion starts: “What began as a fight at a strip club finds its way here as a clash over hearsay.”

Judge Gorsuch shows a concern for the people whose disputes are before the court. Each opinion typically begins with the name of the person seeking relief and why. A recent example: “After a bale of hay hit and injured Miriam White while she was operating her tractor, she sued the manufacturer, Deere & Company.” Ms. White’s appeal was summarily denied, but even the brief, three-page opinion reflects a serious engagement with her arguments and the facts—in contrast with the boilerplate language judges often use in such decisions. Win or lose, parties appearing before Judge Gorsuch surely know that they have been treated with fairness, consideration and respect.

These are not stylistic flourishes, but central to how Judge Gorsuch views the judicial role. “In our legal order,” he has written, “judges distinguish themselves from politicians by the oath they take to apply the law as it is, not to reshape the law as they wish it to be.” When a judge understands that he has no authority to legislate from the bench, cases that might otherwise be hard become straightforward exercises in applying law to facts.

Thus, Judge Gorsuch could recognize the “tragic circumstances” of a family whose daughter had died in a rafting accident, while still holding that the liability release she had signed was legally binding. That Colorado allows people to assume such risks, he explained, was a choice for the state’s General Assembly, not the court.

In a similar dissent, Judge Gorsuch argued for allowing a seventh-grader who was arrested for horseplay in gym class to sue the police officers, reasoning that no New Mexico statute authorized the arrest. And he has vigorously enforced rights of religious exercise under statutes like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, deferring to Congress’s decision to vindicate, as he put it, “this nation’s long-held aspiration to serve as a refuge of religious tolerance.”

Judge Gorsuch is among the judiciary’s most consistent and adept practitioners of textualism, the approach Scalia championed. In a memorial lecture last year, Judge Gorsuch said that “an assiduous focus on text, structure, and history is essential to the proper exercise of the judicial function.” Textualism, he added, serves to “confine the range of possible outcomes and provide a remarkably stable and predictable set of rules people are able to follow.” On the other hand, attempting to divine legislative intent, as he wrote in one opinion, is a “notoriously doubtful business.” Another opinion decried the judicial “conjuring” that substitutes the court’s view of optimal policy for Congress’s.

In an influential 2015 decision, Judge Gorsuch excavated the meaning of a law increasing penalties on anyone who “uses” a gun “during and in relation to” a drug offense. He carefully employed “plain old grade school grammar”—including a sentence diagram.

Judge Gorsuch’s textualism extends to the Constitution, quite emphatically: “That document,” he wrote, “isn’t some inkblot on which litigants may project their hopes and dreams for a new and perfected tort law, but a carefully drafted text judges are charged with applying according to its original public meaning.” Looking to the “original public meaning” of the Fourth Amendment, for example, Judge Gorsuch has rejected the government’s view that a search warrant could be applied across jurisdictional lines. He also disputed its claim that police officers may ignore “No Trespassing” signs to invade a homeowner’s property without a warrant.

What about the Constitution’s separation of powers, intended to safeguard liberty? Judge Gorsuch has been at the vanguard of applying originalism to the questions raised by today’s Leviathan state, which is increasingly controlled by unaccountable executive agencies. These questions loom large after the rash of executive actions by President Obama, and now the whiplash reversals by the Trump administration.

The deference that judges now must give to agencies’ interpretations of the law, he wrote in an opinion last year, permits the executive “to swallow huge amounts of core judicial and legislative power and concentrate federal power in a way that seems more than a little difficult to square with the Constitution of the framers’ design.”

Judge Gorsuch added: “Maybe the time has come to face the behemoth.” His addition to the Supreme Court would give the justices a better chance than ever to do precisely that.

Messrs. Rivkin and Grossman practice appellate and constitutional law with Baker & Hostetler in Washington.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/what-kind-of-a-judge-is-neil-gorsuch-1485912681

When Is a Judge Not Really a Judge?

By DAVID B. RIVKIN JR. and ANDREW M. GROSSMAN

Jan. 23, 2017 in the Wall Street Journal

An “alphabet soup” of federal agencies established since the 1930s have gradually supplanted the rule of Congress and the courts with the rule of supposed expertise. This accumulation of power is what James Madison identified in Federalist No. 47 as “the very definition of tyranny.” An example of this trend is the Securities and Exchange Commission’s increased use of in-house administrative law judges under the Obama administration.

Following high-profile losses in federal court—remember the insider trading charges against Mark Cuban?—the SEC decided to file fewer enforcement cases in courts presided over by independent judges. Instead, the agency began to take advantage of its in-house administrative law judges. Conveniently, a change in the Dodd-Frank Act authorized the agency’s judges to hear more kinds of cases and dispense more penalties.

Administrative law judges are agency employees. The proceedings they oversee provide fewer protections than court cases. They also tend to set stern deadlines and limit the right to factual investigation, often leaving defendants to rely on the SEC’s evidence. According to a 2015 Wall Street Journal analysis, the agency’s shift paid off: Through the beginning of that year, it won 90% of cases in its in-house court, compared with 69% of regular court cases. Administrative decisions can be appealed to court but are rarely reversed. That’s because the judges apply a deferential “clear error” standard to the agency’s factual findings.

The due-process problems inherent in this arrangement are apparent. Less obvious, at least to the SEC, is that it also violates the Constitution’s Appointments Clause, which requires Senate hearings and confirmation votes for department heads and other senior officials. To promote political accountability, the Constitution also requires that “inferior officers” with significant responsibility be appointed by the president or senior officials who are confirmed by the Senate.

This month, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the SEC’s administrative law judges aren’t mere employees but inferior officers. They take testimony, rule on motions, issue subpoenas, preside over triallike hearings, make factual determinations and can even enter judgments and impose penalties in certain circumstances. The court’s analysis was guided by a 1991 Supreme Court decision holding the same about “special trial judges” who had similar powers under the U.S. Tax Court. The SEC will surely appeal, and there is a high likelihood that the Supreme Court will affirm the lower court’s ruling.

The immediate problem for the SEC is that Congress hasn’t authorized the appointment of administrative law judges through the constitutional process. So the agency faces the risk, in cases it tries in-house, that its decisions will be voided. The SEC and its allies will push for a legislative fix so that in-house judges can be properly appointed. Congressional Republicans should use the demand for legislation as a bargaining chip for other reforms, such as restricting cases that can be heard in administrative courts.

But a legislative fix only heightens the contradictions of trying these cases outside of real courts. Due process requires that judges be neutral. A fix would make them political appointees.

Moreover, in Free Enterprise Fund v. Public Accounting Oversight Board (2010), the Supreme Court struck down an arrangement whereby appointed officers were double-insulated from removal. They could lose their jobs only for good cause, and the agency head with the power to remove them could himself only be fired for good cause. That kind of double protection, the court explained, impermissibly “subverts the President’s ability to ensure that the laws are faithfully executed” and “the public’s ability to pass judgment on his efforts.”

Administrative law judges are nearly identically insulated from political control. They can be dismissed only for good cause by their agencies, and even then only if the Merit Systems Protection Board agrees. If the 10th Circuit’s decision is upheld, this will almost certainly be the next shoe to drop, and it will leave administrative law judges subject to political control.

That means the in-house judges will be political appointees subject to the supervision of other political appointees—and at risk of dismissal for failure to follow instructions. Will agencies be able to maintain the pretense that they are “judges” in any meaningful sense? It’s difficult to see how.

The SEC’s overreaching may spell the end of the administrative state’s growth—marking the point when Congress and the courts started to regain lost ground. Thanks, Mr. Obama.

Messrs. Rivkin and Grossman practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington, D.C.

Source: http://www.wsj.com/articles/when-is-a-judge-not-really-a-judge-1485215998