The SEC Administrative Law Judges Are Heading to the Supreme Court

The use of administrative law judges by the Securities and Exchange Commission has been strained since the jurisdiction was expanded under Dodd-Frank. There have been a series of cases challenging the ALJs under the the Appointments Clause of the Constitution. The problem was that the judges were appointed by an internal panel instead of by the President or the SEC Commissioners.

An advertising case that led to an adviser being barred is now headed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the Lucia case, the lower court used a three prong test to determine if an ALJ is an “Officer” under the Appointments Clause:

  1. significance of the matters resolved by the government official
  2. discretion the official exercises in reaching the decision
  3. the finality of the decision

On Jan. 12th, the Supreme Court granted an appeal to hear Lucia v. SEC. This was likely based on two factors.

One was a split in the courts on whether the SEC’s administrative law judges were properly appointed. The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals came to the opposite conclusion in Bandimere v. SEC. That court used a different three part analysis to determine if an ALJ is an “inferior officer”:

(1) the position of the SEC ALJ was “established by Law,”;
(2) “the duties, salary, and means of appointment . . . are specified by statute,”.; and
(3) SEC ALJs “exercise significant discretion” in “carrying out . . . important functions,” .

The Bandimere decision rejected the argument in the Lucia case that ALJs do not have final decision-making power. They have enough power to make them an “inferior officer.”

The second was that the Department of Justice decided that the ALJ appointment process was flawed. That position dropped in the Solicitor General’s Brief on Writ of Certiorari for Lucia the argument is now to hear the case and overturn the Lucia ruling.

“[T]he government is now of the view that such ALJs are officers because they exercise ‘significant authority pursuant to the laws of the United States.’ Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1, 126 (1976)”

In response, the SEC ratified all the ALJ appointments. This should fix the problem and erase the constitutional problem.

In the reply brief, Lucia argued that the government’s change of its position and its revised procedures did nothing for him.

“Although the government now agrees that SEC ALJs are Officers, it has afforded petitioners no redress for having subjected them to trial before an unconstitutionally constituted tribunal… On the contrary, petitioners remain subject to draconian sanctions—including a lifetime associational bar—resulting from the tainted proceedings below”

It looks like the SEC has fixed the problem with its ALJs going forward. The problem will be what to do with all of the cases that have already been decided. It seems likely that the SEC is going to agree that the ALJs were a problem. The big question is how to fix that problem for the cases that have already been adjudicated. I would guess that there are a lot of cases that going be expunged, people no longer barred and cash fines repaid.