When Is a Judge Not Really a Judge?

A dispute over whether the SEC can hear its own cases could lead to a shrinking administrative state.

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. Read more »

Corporate crime and punishment

Fines levied by the SEC against a corporation for long-ago wrongdoing do not protect current investors.

By DAVID B. RIVKIN JR.  And JOHN J. CARNEY

Two weeks ago, a unanimous Supreme Court rebuffed the Securities and Exchange Commission Gabelli v. SEC. The SEC maintained that its enforcement actions for fines under the Investment Advisers Act weren’t subject to the five-year statute of limitations. This wasn’t the first time the courts have pushed back a federal agency for overreaching. It won’t be the last.

But the SEC’s audacity prompts a broader policy question: What good is accomplished by imposing monetary penalties on corporations, as the agency attempted to do in Gabelli? The answer is that when such penalties are sought by the government, they probably do more harm than good.

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