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The Future of the CFPB: the Executive Branch and Separation of Powers

On October 18, 2019 the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Seila Law v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). SCOTUS  will answer the question of “whether the substantial executive authority yielded by the CFPB, an independent agency led by a single director, violates the separation of powers,” and the Justices requested that the parties brief and argue an additional issue: “If the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is found unconstitutional on the basis of the separation of powers, can 12 U.S.C. § 5491(c)(3) [the for-cause removal provision] be severed from the Dodd-Frank Act?”

Origins of the Consumer Financial Bureau and Previous Constitutional Challenges

The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 (Dodd-Frank) established the CFPB as an independent bureau within the Federal Reserve System designed to protect consumers from abusive financial services practices.  The structure and constitutionality of the CFPB has been addressed before. In 2018, the D.C. Circuit held in PHH Corp. v. CFPB, No. 15-1177 (D.C. Cir. 2018) (PHH) that the current structure of the CFPB, which features a single director that cannot be removed by the president except for cause, "is consistent with Article II" of the Constitution. 

The PHH opinion stated that Congress’ response to the consumer finance abuse that led up to the 2008 financial crisis purposely created the CFPB to be "a regulator attentive to individuals and families"  because the existing regulatory agencies were too concerned about the financial industry they were supposed to supervise. It was determined that the CFPB needed independence to do its job, and the CPFB structure was designed to confer that independence.   Neither PHH Corporation nor the CFPB filed a petition for certiorari to ask the Supreme Court to review the D.C. Circuit’s decision. 

Background of the Seila Law Case

In Seila Law v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) the Petitioner is a law firm that provides a variety of legal services to consumers, and as part of a CFPB investigation into whether Seila Law violated certain federal laws, the CFPB issued a civil investigative demand seeking information and documents. Seila Law objected to the demand on the ground that the CFPB was unconstitutionally structured and filed a petition to a federal district court for enforcement. The district court held that the structure of the CFPB did not violate the separation of powers and was constitutional, after which that district court decision was appealed. The Ninth Circuit affirmed, noting that the issues had been “thoroughly canvassed” in the DC Circuit it in PHH, and adopting the position of the PHH majority that the CFPB’s structure is constitutional. Seila Law filed a petition for a writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court seeking review of the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, and here we are.

An Experienced Federal Agency Litigator’s Perspective

Mr. Anthony E. DiResta, is co-chair of Holland & Knight’s Consumer Protection Defense and Compliance Team, and a former Director of the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Southeast Regional office.  Mr. DiResta was kind enough to take some time with the National Law Review to discuss the upcoming Seila Law decision and its impact on the future of the CFPB.   


NLR: Can you sum up the CFPB and separation of powers story to this point from your own viewpoint? 

DiResta: The Supreme Court has decided to review this case because of the constitutionality of the CFPB’s structure, based on separation of powers. Any single leader in government who doesn’t serve at the pleasure of the President may simply have too much power, and people with certain jurisprudential philosophies about how government should be run find that an offensive situation. That’s the theory behind the certiorari decision and why SCOTUS is addressing the case - it’s really a question of constitutionality and the power of administrative agencies. Additionally, the Court will look at the severability of the CFPB in Dodd-Frank, whether it’s possible to just restructure the single leader structure, and then leave the Bureau intact to continue business as usual.

NLR: It seems many of these issues could've been avoided had the CFPB been structured more as a multi-member commission initially or if Congress had simply expanded FTC powers.  Why do you think it was structured differently?

DiResta: That’s a matter of speculation - but I think it might have gone something like this: After the Recession in the early 2000s, many people felt that government was asleep at the wheel, letting  devastating things in banking and finance and servicing to consumers run out of control, which led to serious blunders and mishaps. So it was decided that a new office was needed - and this was led by representatives in Congress like Elizabeth Warren.

Why they didn’t simply expand the power and resources of the FTC is also pure speculation - they could have merely expanded FTC’s jurisdiction and reach to achieve similar outcomes and intentions.

The Constitutionality of the CFPB

NLR: Do you think SCOTUS will rule in favor of the petitioner in Seila Law, and find the structure of the CFPB unconstitutional?

DiResta: I do. I suspect that SCOTUS will, in fact, find the structure unconstitutional on the basis of the separation of powers. But I also believe that an even more interesting part of that will be the discussion of the severability of the organization’s leadership, leaving the CFPB itself intact. If the structure is unconstitutional, how the Court recommends a remedy to correct that unconstitutionality could have far-reaching effects. This is so important - and we should all be excited that we get to watch this corrective process in action.

NLR: Is there a chance this would result in a complete restructure of CFPB, or even its possible dissolution?

DiResta: I really don’t think so - and the Court couldn’t do that anyway. The Court could recommend to Congress that a certain path for correction be followed, but it will be up to Congress to rearrange the CFPB (if that’s the result) in the best way. The legislative branch will just have to make sure it’s done, in a way that the Court recommends.

Some More Background on CFPB Constitutionality Litigation

Then-Judge, now Justice Kavanaugh was on the U.S Court of Appeals Court for the D.C. Circuit for the 2018 en banc ruling in the PHH Corp. v. CFPB case and on the 2016 three-judge decision. Judge Kavanaugh authored two opinions regarding PHH:  declaring a certain aspect of the CFPB to be unconstitutional and in 2018, the dissenting opinion from the en banc U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C Circuit’s decision overruling the 2016 panel opinion.

The 2016 panel opinion determined that the structure of the CFPB is unconstitutional stating:  “The concentration of massive, unchecked power in a single Director marks a dramatic departure from settled historical practice and makes the CFPB unique among independent agencies.” And the 2016 panel also presented a view of the Constitution that vests with the president an extensive degree of unilateral authority over the executive branch’s enforcement of federal laws. 

NLR:  Since Justice Kavanaugh was a judge involved in a similar case – PHH Corp. v. CFPB – why is he allowed to rule on this matter again?

DiResta: I’m not an expert on judicial ethics but there does not appear to be improper bias in Kavanaugh reviewing this decision. Rather, his views in PHH reflect a philosophical perspective on separation of powers and the role of administrative agencies.  In fact, I expect they’ll use his past ruling on PHH as part of their internal discussion. 

Seila Law v CFPB and Election Politics

NLR: It's difficult to ignore the political undertones of this case:  a watchdog organization created, in part, with input from some high-profile democrats (most notably Elizabeth Warren, who is currently running as a candidate for president) is being challenged and that challenge is being echoed in support by largely conservative elements.  In your view, is this case a litmus test for the Supreme Court delving into political issues, something it has largely tried not to do?

DiResta: No - I really don’t see this as political. Again, this is a purely constitutional question, a legal question, and it’s exactly the kind of case the SCOTUS should be deciding. If we’re honest, this is a perfect example of why we have SCOTUS in the first place: To examine how effective our public servants are behaving and performing their responsibilities under the constitutional structure revealed in the separation of powers doctrine. 

Besides that, politically speaking, this could boomerang. Consider: if the Democrats win the White House in 2020, and the Court were to change the structure, that would offer any Democratic President the opportunity to appoint a new Director in 2021, and Kathleen Kraninger’s term isn’t up until 2023.

Informed Democracy at Work

While the situation with CFPB and its constitutionality is demonstrably important, DiResta touched on a few more salient - though no less important - points.

DiResta: Democracy isn’t supposed to be easy. Democracy is hard - it’s messy and complicated. It’s in its nature, and in the nature of different ideas.

In a free marketplace of ideas, people will clash when citizens are free to express themselves, and there will always be conflict - but it’s out of resolving those conflicts that democracy claims - and grows - its power and attraction. It’s so important that we - the people - see this and get to comment on it - to watch this happening. 

NLR: Absolutely. In a world where the news cycle has compressed from days, to hours, to minutes - while attention spans have diminished in similar fashion - it’s increasingly important that these monumental workings in government are transparent, and that people see them.

DiResta: I couldn’t agree more. And - as a young lawyer, I  had the privilege to work with some very dedicated and highly professional journalists who understood journalism as a public service, not as entertainment.  These journalists saw themselves as educators, bringing light to the processes and prospects of government to citizens. And that’s how the media serves effectively as the Fourth Branch of government. A branch that presents a constant check to the power of government and its branches, and that gives the people the knowledge to make better decisions, and to vote for the best people and the best situations.

We sincerely appreciate Mr. DiResta for his thoughtful insights and for taking time out of his busy schedule to share them with the National Law Review.

Copyright ©2023 National Law Forum, LLCNational Law Review, Volume IX, Number 330

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William Thieme Technical Systems Director National Law Review
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