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Seila Law LLC v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Summary

By: Julian J. Ginos

Supreme Court 35719-0001

The below summary is based on the Court’s official transcript of the argument, which remains subject to final review.

The March 3, 2020 oral argument in Seila Law LLC v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau[1] focused on whether the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s (CFPB) single-director leadership structure is unconstitutional on the ground that the President, by statute, cannot remove that director at will.

Most questioning concerned whether (and how) the Court could draw a principled line distinguishing permissible and impermissible removal restrictions. The justices also probed the advocates about the likely breadth and impact of the rules being proposed. As usual, Justice Thomas asked no questions. Several themes emerged:

  • Many justices pursued lines of questioning concerning the possibility of a limited ruling.
    • The Chief Justice asked several times how the CFPB’s budgetary independence should affect the Court’s analysis, which suggests he might propose a resolution distinguishing the CFPB from other agencies to produce a narrower opinion.
    • Justice Kavanaugh pointed out that past decisions treating severability clauses as merely creating a presumption of severability date to an era when the Court’s analysis focused less on statutory text, which may indicate a view that the Court is bound to treat the removal restrictions as severable.
    • Justice Ginsburg asked whether Petitioner had even been harmed, given that the investigative demand was later ratified by an acting director (who was removable at will).
    • Justice Sotomayor similarly asked if the Court should address severability first and reserve consideration of the removal restriction for when a concrete dispute arises between a President and a director, if one ever does.
  • Two justices, however, appeared unreceptive to certain arguments advanced in favor of a narrower holding.
    • Justice Alito asked the Solicitor General to explain the Court’s earlier precedents treating severability clauses as nondispositive, potentially indicating willingness to strike down the entire statute.
    • Justice Gorsuch seemed taken aback by one proposed nonconstitutional resolution, observing that the appointed amicus’s argument that ratification resolves the dispute resembles a request for dismissal of the writ as improvidently granted, even though the ratification argument against certiorari was raised during certiorari briefing.

  • Several justices expressed concern about the rationale and administrability of the rules being proposed.
    • The Chief Justice appeared hostile to a rule that would prohibit removal for particular policy decisions but permit it for broad policy disagreements (an approach Justice Gorsuch likewise seemed to think unworkable), which could necessitate the Court’s refereeing of such questions—a result the Chief Justice called “the worst of all possible worlds.”
    • Justices Alito and Gorsuch both displayed skepticism at the feasibility of the amici’s proposal that removal restrictions be tolerated only where the principal officer is not exercising core powers the Constitution assigns to the President.
    • Justice Breyer focused on whether the facially straightforward rule of permitting removal restrictions on multimember but not single-director structures had an underlying logic or useful guiding principle, compared to a case-by-case approach that would assess each agency’s particular need for independence.
    • Justices Ginsburg and Kagan both suggested that multimember committees are actually harder to influence, and thus more independent, than single-director structures, which arguably cuts in favor of tolerating more removal restrictions for single-director structures.
    • Justice Sotomayor noted that several agencies comparable in power to the CFPB—the Office of Special Counsel and the Social Security Administration—have leaders with similar removal restrictions.

  • The justices also alluded to the practical consequences of the proposed rules.
    • Justice Kavanaugh repeatedly echoed the Solicitor General’s concern that a director, whose tenure may extend into the next President’s term, could saddle that President with unwanted policy priorities.
    • Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh both expressed concern that allowing removal for policy differences would effectively overturn Humphrey’s Executor v. United States.[2] Justice Gorsuch appeared to prefer “being honest” about such an overruling, and Justice Kavanaugh observed that watering down the removal restrictions would implicate the independence of other agencies as well.

In sum, those forecasting the CFPB’s demise may have found little at oral argument to dissuade them. Even so, the variety of rationales debated suggests the scope and reasoning of any decision remains up in the air.


[1] Docket No. 19-7.

[2] 295 U.S. 602 (1935).