November 23, 2011
Jordan on Business Roundtable v. SEC
My colleague Bill Jordan has written a review of the Business Roundtable v. SEC decision (striking down the SEC's proxy access rule) for his "News from the Circuits" column in the forthcoming 37 Administrative and Regulatory Law News 1. Here's an excerpt:
The court criticized the agency’s rejection of studies favoring the management position in favor of “two relatively unpersuasive studies” purportedly showing the value of the inclusion of dissident directors on corporate boards.
The court’s dismissive treatment of the SEC’s response to these studies contrasts sharply with the longstanding principle of judicial, deference to agency assessment of complex technical and scientific studies.... Note that the court considered itself qualified to determine that the studies relied upon by the SEC were “relatively unpersuasive.” This is not the language of arbitrary and capricious review or even of hard look review. This is the language of substantive judgment, even political judgment.
The contrast is particularly striking because this case essentially involved judgments about the value of democracy. In assessing electoral democracy, surely we assume that elections improve outcomes because they hold politicians accountable for their actions. It seems reasonable for the SEC to incorporate this fundamental principle of democratic institutions into the arena of shareholder democracy. At least a court should review such agency judgments – made by the politically accountable electoral branch of government rather than the unaccountable judiciary – with considerable deference. The D.C. Circuit’s review in this case was precisely the opposite. On one particular issue, the court characterized the agency’s explanation as “utterly mindless.”
It is difficult to determine the long-term significance of this decision. It suggests, among other things, that the D.C. Circuit (at least these three judges) consider themselves well qualified to second-guess agency decisions about issues of corporate structure and costs even if they should defer to agency decisions about scientific and technical issues.