CFPB’s Constitutionality Problem: Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?

Could a dispute over the constitutionality of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (“CFPB”) overturn a thirty-year-old Supreme Court precedent and vindicate the late Justice Antonin Scalia in one of his most famous dissents?  On the last day of January, the D.C. Circuit issued an opinion on the structure of that controversial independent agency:  PHH Corporation, et. al., v. CFPB, No. 15-1177 (D.C. Cir., January 31, 2018) en banc.   This opinion, with concurrences and dissents, is two hundred fifty pages long.  There is an awful lot to unpack, but this post will only focus on one glaring precedent that jumps out from the Opinion and every concurrence and dissent:  Morrison v. Olson, 487 U.S. 654 (1988)

In a quick review, I counted 43 citations of it in the Opinion, 12 in a concurrence and 40 times in the dissents (many of these were to Scalia’s lone dissent).  There is only one Justice now on the Court who was on the Court when Morrison was decided.  But Justice Kennedy took no part in consideration of the case.  Of all the protagonists, only Kennedy and Ted Olson (the Olson in the caption and also counsel for PHH) are still in the picture.

In a nutshell, the majority and the concurrences rely on Morrison v. Olson for the proposition that the “independent” nature of the head of the CFPB is constitutional.  Not unreasonably, Judge Pillard and her majority believe that case is binding and it allows a single administrator insulated from at-will dismissal by the President.  The dissents believe they have distinguished that case and another older precedent, and the combination of insulation from Congress and from the Executive makes the CFPB different and worse from other agencies whose structures have been upheld in the past.  Judge Kavanaugh puts his finger on the shaky foundation upon which the majority builds. In footnote 3 of his dissent he notes:

Recall, moreover, that the independent counsel experiment ended with nearly universal consensus that the experiment had been a mistake and that Justice Scalia had been right back in 1988 to view the independent counsel system as an unwise and unconstitutional departure from historical practice and a serious threat to individual liberty. See Morrison v. Olson, 487 U.S. 654, 699 (1988) (Scalia, J., dissenting) (“this wolf comes as a wolf”); see also Stanford Lawyer 4 (Spring 2015) (quoting Justice Kagan’s statement that Justice Scalia’s dissent in Morrison is “one of the greatest dissents ever written and every year it gets better”). The independent counsel experience strongly counsels against single-Director independent agencies.

Scalia’s famous “called shot” of the trouble such a statute would cause has echoed down the years and is one reason why the Independent Counsel statute was not renewed.  It is also telling that when Morrison was decided the renaissance of originalism, textualism and the focus on separation of powers were in their infancy.  Now, a generation and a half of scholars and judges have grown up reading Scalia’s dissent.  Its most famous passage is:

Frequently an issue of this sort will come before the Court clad, so to speak, in sheep’s clothing: the potential of the asserted principle to effect important change in the equilibrium of power is not immediately evident, and must be discerned by a careful and perceptive analysis. But this wolf comes as a wolf.

I have little doubt this case will be before the Supreme Court before long, and Scalia (and Olson) might at long last be vindicated on the nature of the Executive and on separation of powers in the Constitution.

John J. Vecchione is president and CEO at Cause of Action Institute.