Regulating Impartiality in Agency Adjudication

by Kent Barnett

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Abstract

Which should prevail—the Take Care Clause of Article II or the Due Process Clause? To Justice Breyer’s chagrin, the majorities in Lucia v. SEC and Free Enterprise Fund v. PCAOB expressly declined to resolve whether the U.S. Constitution condones SEC administrative law judges’ and other similarly situated agency adjudicators’ current statutory protection from at-will removal. The crux of the problem is that, on one hand, senior officials may use at-will removal to pressure agency adjudicators and thereby potentially imperil the impartiality that due process requires. On the other hand, Article II limits Congress’s ability to cocoon executive officers, including potentially agency adjudicators, from at-will removal.

This Article argues that the executive branch itself can and should moot or mitigate this constitutional clash. Nothing in Article II prevents the president from issuing executive orders and agencies from promulgating regulations—collectively, what I refer to as “impartiality regulations”—that require good cause for disciplining and removing agency adjudicators, as well as other means of protecting adjudicator impartiality. Indeed, the executive branch has a long-standing yet overlooked practice of using executive orders and regulations for similar purposes. Impartiality regulations are but one form of the executive branch’s internal separation of powers. Such self-imposed separation provides a strong theoretical and practical solution for the agency-adjudicator dilemma.

Regulating Impartiality in Agency Adjudication

by Kent Barnett

Click here for a PDF file of this article

Abstract

Which should prevail—the Take Care Clause of Article II or the Due Process Clause? To Justice Breyer’s chagrin, the majorities in Lucia v. SEC and Free Enterprise Fund v. PCAOB expressly declined to resolve whether the U.S. Constitution condones SEC administrative law judges’ and other similarly situated agency adjudicators’ current statutory protection from at-will removal. The crux of the problem is that, on one hand, senior officials may use at-will removal to pressure agency adjudicators and thereby potentially imperil the impartiality that due process requires. On the other hand, Article II limits Congress’s ability to cocoon executive officers, including potentially agency adjudicators, from at-will removal.

This Article argues that the executive branch itself can and should moot or mitigate this constitutional clash. Nothing in Article II prevents the president from issuing executive orders and agencies from promulgating regulations—collectively, what I refer to as “impartiality regulations”—that require good cause for disciplining and removing agency adjudicators, as well as other means of protecting adjudicator impartiality. Indeed, the executive branch has a long-standing yet overlooked practice of using executive orders and regulations for similar purposes. Impartiality regulations are but one form of the executive branch’s internal separation of powers. Such self-imposed separation provides a strong theoretical and practical solution for the agency-adjudicator dilemma.