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Briefs filed in Supreme Court CFPB constitutionality challenge

Courts Federal Issues CFPB Single-Director Structure Constitution Seila Law Separation of Powers Dodd-Frank

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On December 9, parties filed briefs in Seila Law LLC v. CFPB. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the U.S. Supreme Court granted cert in Seila to answer the question of whether an independent agency led by a single director violates the Constitution’s separation of powers under Article II, while also directing the parties to brief and argue whether 12 U.S.C. §5491(c)(3), which sets up the CFPB’s single director structure and imposes removal for cause, is severable from the rest of the Dodd-Frank Act, should it be found to be unconstitutional. While both parties are in agreement on the CFPB’s single-director leadership structure, they differ on how the matter should be resolved.

According to Seila Law’s brief, the CFPB’s single-director leadership structure is a blatant violation of the Constitution’s separation of powers clause. Seila Law proposes that the Court eliminate the CFPB entirely, leaving Congress to determine how to address the unconstitutionality of the Bureau, rather than save the law by making the director an at-will employee of the President. Removing the director at will, Seila Law argues, “would radically reshape the CFPB, creating a mutant version of the agency that Congress envisioned—one that would still be unaccountable to Congress, yet fully within presidential control.” Discussing the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit’s reliance in part on a 1935 Supreme Court decision in Humphrey’s Executor v. United States (which dealt with removal protections for members of a nonpartisan, multimember commission) in its May ruling which held that the Bureau’s single-director structure is constitutional (InfoBytes coverage here), Seila Law states that the Court’s ruling in Humphrey’s Executor was “badly reasoned, wrongly decided, and should be overruled,” and, in any event, is distinguishable when addressing the CFPB’s single-director leadership structure. Whether the Court distinguishes or overturns Humphrey’s Executor’s precedent, Seila Law argues, it should hold that the Bureau’s structure violates the separation of powers clause and reverse the 9th Circuit’s judgment.

“By insulating the director of the CFPB from removal at will by the President while empowering him to exercise substantial executive power, Congress breached the President’s core prerogatives under Article II of the Constitution,” Seila Law further asserts, claiming that the appropriate remedy for the constitutional violation would be to deny the CFPB’s petition to enforce the CID and ultimately let Congress determine how to address the “constitutional defect in the CFPB’s structure.” Seila Law also argues that should the Court decide to engage in severability analysis, it should invalidate all of Title X of Dodd-Frank, which does not allow the current leadership structure to be altered to a multi-member commission.

In contrast, though the CFPB concedes that Dodd-Frank’s restriction on the President’s ability to remove the Bureau’s director violates the “separation of powers” principles of the Constitution, it contends in its brief that, should the removal provision be found unconstitutional, it should be severed from the rest of the law in accordance with Dodd-Frank’s express severability clause. “Even considering only the Bureau-specific provisions contained in Title X . . . , there is no basis to conclude that Congress would have preferred to have no Bureau at all rather than a Bureau headed by a Director who would be removable like almost all other single-headed agencies,” the CFPB wrote. “Nothing in the statutory text or history of the Bureau’s creation suggests, much less clearly demonstrates, that Congress would have preferred, for example, that the regulatory authority vested in the Bureau revert back to the seven federal agencies that previously administered those responsibilities if a court were to invalidate the Director’s removal restriction.”

Oral arguments are scheduled for March 3, 2020.

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