Separation-of-powers cases tend to be controversial. For instance, when the D.C. Circuit last addressed removal and initially concluded that Congress could not grant the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Director “for cause” protection, the United States argued that the panel had “set up what may be the most important separation-of-powers case in a generation.” What followed was rehearing by the full D.C. Circuit, which sided with the CFPB in a decision that came in at 250 pages, including the six concurrences and dissents. The Supreme Court has now agreed to hear this same issue, and some are already hinting at the possibility of a 5-4 decision.
Notably, however, separation-of-powers cases are not always controversial, at least not in that sense. The Appointments Clause cases are a good example. Although the Appointments Clause is very important (indeed, we hosted an entire symposium on it), it doesn’t generate the same intensity. In Lucia v. SEC, for instance, Justice Kagan — in a 7-2 (or 6-1-2, depending on your count) decision — concluded that the SEC’s administrative law judges are “Officers of the United States,” meaning that their manner of appointment was unconstitutional.
It isn’t just the Supreme Court, moreover, that decides Appointments Clause cases with relatively less controversy. Consider Lucia, when it was still in the D.C. Circuit. There, after a fascinating oral argument, the en banc Court split evenly, “even though judges appointed by Democratic Presidents outnumber their colleagues appointed by Republican Presidents.” Similarly, when the Tenth Circuit disagreed with the D.C. Circuit on this issue in Bandimere v. SEC, its opinion “was authored by a judge who had run for high political office as a Democrat earlier in his career, and who had been appointed to the bench by President Obama.” To be sure, in Bandimere, there was a dissent, but it was only for a small portion of the Tenth Circuit. Using party-of-nominating-president as a proxy can be problematic, but the fact that these cases don’t break down on those lines is noteworthy.
And these aren’t the only examples. In Intercollegiate Broadcasting System, Inc. v. Copyright Royalty Board, for instance, a D.C. Circuit panel of Judges Williams* (the author), Garland, and Griffith unanimously found a violation of the Appointments Clause for Copyright Royalty Judges. The United States accepted that decision and did not seek certiorari. Similarly, yesterday, in Arthrex, Inc. v. Smith & Nephew, Inc., a panel of the Federal Circuit — also comprised of judges appointed by presidents of both parties — unanimously held that the Patent Trial and Appeal Board’s Administrative Patent Judges are unconstitutionally appointed.
Assuming there is an actual pattern here and not just noise, I’m not sure why the Appointments Clauses cases are less controversial than the removal cases. It’s probably not the remedy. In Free Enterprise Fund v. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, the Court — controversially — severed the removal protection. Free Enterprise Fund was a high-profile, contentious decision. Yet in Intercollegiate Broadcasting System and Arthrex, the courts also severed the removal protections. Another possibility is that sorting through the Appointments Clause may be easier than figuring out removal. Or perhaps the stakes are just lower for the Appointments Clause. Or maybe there is another dynamic that I’m missing entirely. But in all events, our relatively uncontroversial Appointments Clause strikes me as interesting.
Well, at least interesting enough to merit a quick blog post in a quiet week for the D.C. Circuit. 🙂
* Speaking of Judge Williams, he authored the lone opinion this week for the Court. As a heads up: Institute For Justice v. IRS — per Wiliams, joined by Judges Pillard and Rao — is more fun to read than a technical FOIA opinion has any right to be. If you’ve ever wondered what is a “database” (and, really, even if you haven’t), you should give this one a read. To the Institute for Justice: congratulations on your chance to potentially learn more about the Asset Forfeiture Tracking and Retrieval System.
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