July 01, 2010
Reflections on Free Enterprise Fund v. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board
Posted by Gordon Smith

David gave us a timely and accurate summary of Free Enterprise Fund v. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board shortly after the opinion was released, and Donna Nagy offered additional commentary. It took me a few days to get to the opinion, but now that I have read it, I have two brief comments: 

  • What passes for constitutional law in this opinion is a policy decision without (much) empirical foundation. Of course, this isn't the only instance when the Supreme Court is forced to make such decisions, but I thought Justice Breyer framed the central question of the case nicely: "To what extent ... is the Act’s 'for cause' provision likely, as a practical matter, to limit the President’s exercise of executive authority?"

This is an empirical question, and Justice Breyer offer several anecdotes illustrating ways in which a President informally exercises power over administrators, thus suggesting that the "for cause" provision is not unduly detrimental to Presidential power. The majority responds by deflection: "In its pursuit of a 'workable government,' Congress cannot reduce the Chief Magistrate to a cajoler-in-chief." Cute ... but it elides the issue. Where Justice Breyer seeks evidence of the effects of two layers of for-cause tenure, the majority settles for a rough sense of the right limit: "two layers are not the same as one."

I am happy with the majority's outcome because it comports with my sense of the right limit. I might be even happier if they would acknowledge that "one layer is not the same as none." In any event, the more interesting point to me is that a little evidence would go a long way in situations like this. Do for-cause provisions matter in the real world? How much to they change behavior? I don't know if anyone has done this research, but we are seeing more of this sort of scholarship as more law professors with training in empirical methods enter the academy.

  • A second empirical question -- albeit one that seems harder to measure than the first -- is whether limitations on Presidential power necessarily result in expansions of legislative power. Again, Justice Breyer frames the issue, citing Freytag v. Commissioner, 501 U. S. 868, 878 (1991): "The Court has said that '[o]ur separation-of-powers jurisprudence generally focuses on the danger of one branch’s aggrandizing its power at the expense of another branch.'" According to Breyer, the statutory provisions in question do not aggrandize power to Congress because "Congress has not granted itself any role in removing the members of the Accounting Board." The majority, by contrast, observes: "Congress has plenary control over the salary, duties, and even existence of executive offices. Only Presidential oversight can counter its influence." 

All very interesting, and I would probably give the nod to the majority, but I was also interested to note soon-to-be-Justice Kagan's views on this issue: “As a practical matter, successful insulation of administration from the President―even if accomplished in the name of ‘independence’―will tend to enhance Congress’s own authority over the insulated activity.” Elena Kagan, Presidential Administration, 114 Harv. L. Rev. 2245, 2271 n. 93 (2001).

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