Constitutionally Conforming Agency Adjudication
- Author(s): Jennifer Mascott
- Date Posted: 2017
- Legal Studies #: 17-14
- Availability: Full text (most recent) on SSRN
In June 2017 the D.C. Circuit issued a judgment that essentially reaffirms the constitutionality of current appointments procedures for administrative law judges (ALJs) in the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). After conducting an en banc hearing in the case, the en banc court split evenly over whether the ALJs are “Officers of the United States” subject to the constitutional requirement of appointment by the president, a department head, or a court of law. The evenly divided vote resulted in the affirmance of the D.C. Circuit’s earlier panel decision finding that the ALJs are not “officers”—continuing the court’s split with the Tenth Circuit, which has concluded the ALJs are “officers.” The continued split and the en banc posture of the case mean this issue may receive consideration by the Supreme Court.
This essay responds to a widely cited article by Professor Kent Barnett that suggested ALJs should be appointed by neither the President or an agency head, even if the courts eventually conclude they are “officers.” In particular, Professor Barnett contends that executive branch appointment of agency adjudicators creates such a significant threat to ALJ impartiality that due process considerations may require a court of law such as the D.C. Circuit—rather than the executive branch—to appoint ALJs. This essay refutes those concerns. Tying together legal scholarship on due process and the Appointments Clause, this essay contends: The Article II clause that vests executive power in the President, as well as the text and drafting history of the Appointments Clause, together mandate that agency adjudicators must be appointed by executive branch actors—not by courts of law. As long as these adjudicators handle issues properly resolved through executive adjudication as a historical matter, there are no constitutional partiality concerns with the executive branch appointment—or even removal—of agency adjudicators. Rather, the transparency protections of the Appointments Clause provide the appropriate constitutional mechanism for accountability in executive adjudication.