On November 7, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Michelle Cochran v. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. In April 2016, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) brought an enforcement action against Michelle Cochran, a certified public accountant, alleging that she had failed to comply with federal auditing standards. A SEC administrative law judge (ALJ) determined Cochran had violated federal law, fined her $22,500, and banned her from practicing before the SEC for five years. The SEC adopted the ALJ’s decision, and Cochran objected.

Before the SEC could rule on Cochran’s objection, the Supreme Court decided Lucia v. SEC, in which it held that SEC ALJs are officers of the United States under the Appointments Clause, who must be appointed by the President, a court of law, or a department head. In response to the Lucia ruling, the SEC remanded all pending administrative cases for new proceedings before constitutionally appointed ALJs, including Cochran’s.

Cochran filed a federal lawsuit arguing that while Lucia may have addressed one constitutional issue with ALJs, it left uncorrected another problem: because SEC ALJs enjoy multiple layers of “for-cause” removal protection, they are unconstitutionally insulated from the President’s Article II removal power. The district court dismissed her case for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction based on five circuit courts of appeal ruling that the Exchange Act implicitly stripped district courts of the jurisdiction to hear challenges to ongoing SEC enforcement proceedings. Arguing that in 2010, the Supreme Court had unanimously ruled in Free Enterprise Fund that nothing in the Exchange Act stripped federal court jurisdiction either explicitly, or implicitly, Cochran appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. A three judge panel affirmed the dismissal 2-1, but later, the Fifth Circuit sitting en banc, reversed 9-7, holding that Cochran had district court jurisdiction to bring her challenge to the SEC ALJ’s removal protections.

The case is set to be argued on Nov 7, 2022. We will break down the oral argument for this case on the next day, November 8, 2022.

–Margaret A. Little, Senior Litigation Counsel, New Civil Liberties Alliance

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