On June 21, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Lucia v. S.E.C., reversing sanctions ordered by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) appointed by SEC staff and not the SEC Commissioner. ALJs are tasked with presiding over SEC enforcement proceedings, and the Court held that they must be appointed by the Commissioner and not staff because ALJs are “Officers of the United States” within the meaning of the Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the United States Constitution (“Appointments Clause”).

The SEC is authorized by statute to institute administrative proceedings against alleged wrongdoers, and the Commission itself is permitted to preside over the proceedings. 17 CFR § 201.110 (2017). The Commission is also authorized by statute to delegate administrative proceedings to ALJs and has done so. See 15 U.S.C. § 78d-1(a). ALJs possess significant powers over discovery, motion practice, the admissibility of evidence and testimony, and generally regulating the course of proceedings, including the ability to impose sanctions. 17 CFR §§ 201.111, 201.180, 200.14(a), 201.230. At the conclusion of administrative proceedings, ALJs issue an “initial decision,” setting out “findings and conclusions” about all “material issues of fact [and] law,” including an “appropriate order, sanction, relief, or denial thereof.” Id. at §§ 201.360(a)(1), 201.360(b), 201.360(d)(1). After the “initial decision,” the SEC can either review and modify the decision or, without review, “issue an order that the [ALJ’s] decision has become final.” Id. at § 201.360(d)(2).

In Lucia, the SEC initiated an administrative proceeding against Raymond Lucia, charging Lucia and his investment company with violating the Investment Advisers Act for misleading clients into investing an a retirement saving strategy called “Buckets of Money.” The SEC assigned the case to ALJ Cameron Elliot, who determined Lucia should be sanctioned, charged $300,000 in civil penalties, and banned from the investment industry for life.

The Appointments Clause states that all “Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for . . . [may be appointed by] the President alone, [by] the Courts of Law, or [by] the Heads of Departments.” Central to the Court’s decision was the characterization of ALJs as “officers” rather than mere “employees.” Lucia argued that Judge Elliot was an “Officer of the United States” and was not duly appointed by a “Head of Department,” namely, the SEC Commissioner. After the D.C. Circuit rejected his argument, he appealed to the Supreme Court to resolve the emerging circuit split. See Bandimere v. SEC, 844 F.3d 1168, 1179 (2016).

Justice Kagan spoke for the Court, penning an opinion that largely tracked the Court’s Appointments Clause jurisprudence. The Court commented that its opinion in Freytag v. Commissioner, 501 U.S. 868, 873 (1991), “says everything necessary to decide this case.” Freytag held that “special trial judges” (STJs) of the United States Tax Court were “Officers of the United States” after applying the “significant authority” test articulated in Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976). See also United States v. Germaine, 99 U.S. 508 (1879).

Reviewing the facts, the Court determined that ALJs exercise “significant discretion” when carrying out “important functions” including “all of the authority needed to ensure fair and orderly adversarial hearings—indeed, nearly all the tools of federal trial judges.” The Court reversed the judgement of the Court of Appeals, ordered a new hearing before a “properly appointed” official, and determined that Judge Elliot could not hear the case because he could not be expected to consider the matter as though he had not adjudicated it before.

Interestingly, in footnote 6, the Court commented that while the present case was moving through the courts, the SEC issued an order “ratifying] the prior appointments of its ALJs.” The Court found “no reason to address that issue” because “[t]he SEC may decide to conduct Lucia’s rehearing itself” or “it may assign the hearing to an ALJ who has received a constitutional appointment independent of the ratification.” This leaves open the question of whether the SEC’s ratification was effective to retroactively protect rulings from constitutional attack or whether the ratification simply authorized ALJ proceedings moving forward.