REFinBlog

Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

March 20, 2017

United States v. CFPB

By David Reiss

photo by AgnosticPreachersKid

United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse

The Trump Administration has filed an amicus brief in PHH Corp. v. CFPB. The case is schedule for an en banc hearing in May. The filing is particularly newsworthy because the Trump Administration is siding with PHH, a mortgage lender, against the CFPB, a federal agency. The Trump Administration summarizes its position as follows:

In 2010, Congress created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) as part of the Dodd-Frank Act, giving the CFPB authority to enforce U.S. consumer-protection laws that had previously been administered by seven different government agencies, as well as new provisions added by Dodd-Frank itself. See 12 U.S.C. § 5581(b). The CFPB is headed by a single Director who is appointed by the President, with the advice and consent of the Senate, for a term of five years, id. § 5491(b), (c)(1), and who may be removed by the President only for “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office,” id. § 5491(c)(3).

The panel in this case held that this “for cause” removal provision violates the constitutional separation of powers. Op. 9-10. The panel explained—and neither party disputes—that, as a general matter, the President has “Article II authority to supervise, direct, and remove at will subordinate [principal] officers in the Executive Branch” in order to exercise his vested power and duty to faithfully execute the laws. Op. 4. The panel recognized as well that Humphrey’s Executor v. United States, 295 U.S. 602, 629 (1935), established an exception to that rule, holding that Congress may “forbid [the] removal except for cause” of members of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)—a holding that has been understood to cover members of other multi-member regulatory commissions that share certain features and functions with the FTC. Op. 4.

The principal constitutional question in this case is whether the exception to the President’s removal authority recognized in Humphrey’s Executor should be extended by this Court beyond multi-member regulatory commissions to an agency headed by a single Director. While we do not agree with all of the reasoning in the panel’s opinion, the United States agrees with the panel’s conclusion that single-headed agencies are meaningfully different from the type of multi-member regulatory commission addressed in Humphrey’s Executor.

The Supreme Court’s analysis in Humphrey’s Executor was premised on the nature of the FTC as a continuing deliberative body, composed of several members with staggered terms to maintain institutional expertise and promote a measure of stability that would not be immediately undermined by political vicissitudes. A single-headed agency, of course, lacks those critical structural attributes that have been thought to justify “independent” status for multi-member regulatory commissions. Moreover, because a single agency head is unchecked by the constraints of group decision-making among members appointed by different Presidents, there is a greater risk that an “independent” agency headed by a single person will engage in extreme departures from the President’s executive policy. And as the panel recognized, while multi-member regulatory commissions sharing the characteristics of the FTC discussed in Humphrey’s Executor have existed for over a century, limitations on the President’s authority to remove a single agency head are a recent development to which the Executive Branch has consistently objected.

We therefore urge the Court to decline to extend the exception recognized in Humphrey’s Executor in this case. (1-2)

This is of course an obscure argument about administrative law jurisprudence, but it also has serious real world consequences. I have previously argued that the panel reached the wrong result in this case and I think that the en banc Court will overturn it.

This amicus brief does not add too much to the reasoning in Judge Kavanaugh’s majority opinion in PHH v. CFPB, although it does flesh out one important argument that it made. The brief provides some support for the position that multi-member commissions are better suited to run independent agencies than single directors. But while it makes the case that single director agencies may not be the best choice for agency design, it does not make the case that it is an unconstitutional one.

 

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