After the SEC settled with Citigroup over misreprsentations made about a toxic security it sold during the financial crisis for a centimillion dollar fine among other things, Judge Rakoff rejected the settlement for failing to contain "cold, hard, solid facts established either by admissions or trials." I've been pretty critical of the decision, which was always headed for reversal. Not that Judge Rakoff cares: his familiarity with the agency (he once was in it), his generally respected status as a judge, and rumblings of discontent by other courts asked to approve other settlements once he fired his shot across the SEC's bow has led to a change in approach by the agency; I talked about the new policy here.
The problem with the decision was twofold, according to the Court of Appeals, at least as I interpret it.
Problem 1: Doctrinally, a settlement decision is an exercise of enforcement discretion, and enforcement discretion is basically unreviewable because the alternative - making it reviewable - would thrust the courts into the heart of what the executive branch does. Because the SEC wanted continuing court supervision of Citigroup as a consequence of the settlement, Rakoff did, indeed, have something to do. But if the SEC had simply dismissed its suit in exchange for the payment of a fine, which is less onerous than a fine plus continuing supervision by a court, Rakoff would have had, literally, no role to play in the resolution of the case. So requiring cold, hard facts to be established as a condition of signing off on a deal was a radical increase in the oversight of the SEC by a court.
No surprise, then, that the Second Circuit said that "there is no basis in the law for the district court to require an adminision of liability as a condition for approving a settlement between the parties. The decision to require an admission of liability before entering into a consent decree rests squarely with the SEC."
Problem 2: Settlements are not about right and wrong, while admissions of guilt are. Settlements are about moving on. We don't expect private parties to establish whether management caused the bankruptcy or someone else did, whether that product really was dangerous, or was misused by consumers, or whatever. And these can be matters of great public import. So it was never clear why the government, even though, yes, it is a state actor, should be treated very differently.
No shock, then, that the Second Circuit has said that "consent decrees are primarily about pragmatism" and "normally compromises in which the parties give up something they might have won in litigation and waive their rights to litigation."
According to the appellate court, the right way to review consent decrees is for procedural clarity and, as far as the public interest is concerned, with Chevron deference to reasonable decisions by the agency. It's not totally clear what that deference means - the court faulted Rakoff for figuring out whether the public interest in the truth was served by the deal when he should have been deciding "whether the public interest would be disserved by entry of the consent decree." But there you go.
Anyway, I think this stuff is interesting, because it's a tool in the regulatory arsenal, and indeed, my first baby law professor article was on just that.
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