Supreme Court Strikes Blow to Unaccountable Bureaucracy in Lucia v. SEC

This morning, the Supreme Court issued a decision in Lucia v. Securities and Exchange Commission, holding that the SEC's administrative law judges are "officers of the United States" subject to the Appointments Clause of the Constitution.  (We covered this topic and case in a breakout panel at our National Policy Conference in April.)  Justice Kagan wrote for the Court (citations omitted):

The sole question here is whether the Commission’s ALJs are “Officers of the United States” or simply employees of the Federal Government. The Appointments Clause prescribes the exclusive means of appointing “Officers.” Only the President, a court of law, or a head of department can do so.  And as all parties agree, none of those actors appointed Judge Elliot before he heard Lucia’s case; instead, SEC staff members gave him an ALJ slot. So if the Commission’s ALJs are constitutional officers, Lucia raises a valid Appointments Clause claim. The only way to defeat his position is to show that those ALJs are not officers at all, but instead non-officer employees—part of the broad swath of “lesser functionaries” in the Government’s workforce. For if that is true, the Appointments Clause cares not a whit about who named them. . . . 

For all the reasons we have given, and all those Freytag gave before, the Commission’s ALJs are “Officers of the United States,” subject to the Appointments Clause.

This decision will help SEC ALJs be more accountable, as they will need to be appointed by a politically accountable person instead of just agency staff.  Justices Thomas and Gorsuch concurred to analyze the original public meaning of "officer" (citations omitted):

The Appointments Clause provides the exclusive process for appointing “Officers of the United States.” While principal officers must be nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate, Congress can authorize the appointment of “inferior Officers” by “the President alone,” “the Courts of Law,” or “the Heads of Departments.”  

This alternative process for appointing inferior officers strikes a balance between efficiency and accountability. Given the sheer number of inferior officers, it would be too burdensome to require each of them to run the gauntlet of Senate confirmation. But, by specifying only a limited number of actors who can appoint inferior officers without Senate confirmation, the Appointments Clause maintains clear lines of accountability—encouraging good appointments and giving the public someone to blame for bad ones. 

The Founders likely understood the term “Officers of the United States” to encompass all federal civil officials who perform an ongoing, statutory duty—no matter how important or significant the duty.  “Officers of the United States” was probably not a term of art that the Constitution used to signify some special type of official. . . . The Founders considered individuals to be officers even if they performed only ministerial statutory duties—including recordkeepers, clerks, and tidewaiters (individuals who watched goods land at a customhouse).  Early congressional practice reflected this understanding. With exceptions not relevant here, Congress required all federal officials with ongoing statutory duties to be appointed in compliance with the Appointments Clause. 

Applying the original meaning here, the administrative law judges of the Securities and Exchange Commission easily qualify as “Officers of the United States.” These judges exercise many of the agency’s statutory duties, including issuing initial decisions in adversarial proceedings. As explained, the importance or significance of these statutory duties is irrelevant. All that matters is that the judges are continuously responsible for performing them.

Also worth noting is Justice Gorsuch's concurrence in today's South Dakota v. Wayfair decision:

My agreement with the Court’s discussion of the history of our dormant commerce clause jurisprudence, however, should not be mistaken for agreement with all aspects of the doctrine. The Commerce Clause is found in Article I and authorizes Congress to regulate interstate commerce. Meanwhile our dormant commerce cases suggest Article IIIcourts may invalidate state laws that offend no congressional statute. Whether and how much of this can be squared with the text of the Commerce Clause, justified by stare decisis, or defended as misbranded products of federalism or antidiscrimination imperatives flowing from Article IV’s Privileges and Immunities Clause are questions for another day.

Justice Gorsuch consistently compares court decisions and doctrines to the Constitution, with an eye to the appropriate role of the courts, to determine whether they are correct.  Justices Thomas and Gorsuch are constantly pointing the Supreme Court to the text of the Constitution, its original meaning, and the proper role of the courts in our system of federalism and the separation of powers.