Tuesday Morning Quarterback of Free Enterprise v. PCAOB

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On Monday, the Supreme Court listened to the oral arguments in Free Enterprise Fund v. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (08-861). For me in the compliance world, the case is about the viability of PCAOB under Sarbanes-Oxley. For the constitutional scholars it is an important separation of powers case.

Responding to concerns about accounting that led to the collapses of Enron and WorldCom, Sarbanes-Oxley established PCAOB as an independent body to oversee the firms that do accounting for public companies. The law gives the Securities and Exchange Commission power to name the members of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board.

The trouble is that the President has no power to remove the Commissioners of the SEC, other than the Chair. The President can only appoint them. Similarly, the SEC selects the board members of PCAOB, but cannot remove them. The Free Enterprise group says that violates a clause of the Constitution giving the president the power to appoint government officials except for certain instances involving inferior officers.

If the Supreme Court agrees that PCAOB isn’t constitutional, it could force a revisit of Sarbanes-Oxley, or at least the portion of it that creates PCAOB. In a broader view for constitutional scholarship, the case could also call into question other independent agencies and how they appoint members of those agencies.

David Zaring in The Conglomerate thinks that the Supreme Court is unlikely to get in the way of an important government agencey. After all eliminating an agency is a sever sanction.

Orin Kerr in The Volokh Conspiracy> got the impression that the arguments did not go well for the challengers to the constitutionality of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board.

Fawn John Johnson and Jess Bravin in The Wall Street Journal look to Justice Kennedy as the key to which way the Supreme Court will decide. The liberal justices are less likely to find fault with the independent agencies. For conservative legal scholars, the case is less about the accounting board itself than about the “unitary executive” theory, which holds that because the president is accountable to the electorate, he must be able to remove federal officials at will.

The transcript and reports seem to focus on how much control the SEC has over PCAOB. Hans Bader points out that the SEC had previously expressed its frustration about how little control it had over PCAOB, seemingly contrary to the arguments made in front of the Supreme Court.

David Zaring in The Conglomerate points out that the number of law review articles referring to “PCAOB”: 1021.  Number referring to “PCOAB”: 29. So much for the higher scholarship and editing of law review articles over blogs.


Broc Romanek, of The Corporate Counsel.net provides a great first-hand account of the hearing and his experience at the Supreme Court the day of the hearing: My SCOTUS Experience: The Full Monty.