Thursday, June 15, 2017
This week, the newest justice on the United States Supreme Court issued his first authored opinion, Henson v. Santander Consumer USA Inc. The topic was debt collection, perhaps not a scintillating topic for most, but Justice Gorsuch opened with a catchy couple of lines - the most colorful of the opinion:
Disruptive dinnertime calls, downright deceit, and more besides drew Congress’s eye to the debt collection industry. From that scrutiny emerged the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, a statute that authorizes private lawsuits and weighty fines designed to deter wayward collection practices.
The rest of the decision centers on statutory interpretation, and following in the footsteps of Justice Scalia as he does, Justice Gorsuch's textual approach does not diverge from that of the late justice. The issue in the case was whether a third party purchaser of a debt can fall within the statutory definition of a "debt collector." Because the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act defines a debt collector as one who collects a debt on behalf of another, the defendant in the case could not be called a debt collector, and so did not violate the Act. The petitioner sought to use grammatical reinterpretations of the Act's wording that did not comport with the plain meaning, and failing that, asserted policy arguments. But Justice Gorsuch did not buy it, saying:
All this seems to us quite a lot of speculation. And while it is of course our job to apply faithfully the law Congress has written, it is never our job to rewrite a constitutionally valid statutory text under the banner of speculation about what Congress might have done had it faced a question that, on everyone’s account, it never faced. See Magwood v. Patterson, 561 U. S. 320, 334 (2010) (“We cannot replace the actual text with speculation as to Congress’ intent”). Indeed, it is quite mistaken to assume, as petitioners would have us, that “whatever” might appear to “further[ ] the statute’s primary objective must be the law.” Rodri- guez v. United States, 480 U. S. 522, 526 (1987) (per curiam) (emphasis deleted). Legislation is, after all, the art of compromise, the limitations expressed in statutory terms often the price of passage, and no statute yet known “pur- sues its [stated] purpose[ ] at all costs.” Id., at 525–526. For these reasons and more besides we will not presume with petitioners that any result consistent with their account of the statute’s overarching goal must be the law but will presume more modestly instead “that [the] legis- lature says . . . what it means and means . . . what it says.” Dodd v. United States, 545 U. S. 353, 357 (2005) (internal quotation marks omitted; brackets in original).
The opinion writer has been criticized for not being sensitive to a broader policy of consumer protections, and while that may be true, it was a unanimous Court that agreed the statute's definition of debt collector did not include the type of defendant before the Court. The Court, all nine now, agreed upon one thing - the plain meaning of the statute as written. Further, the Court did not veer off the beaten path. It affirmed the decision of the Fourth Circuit, which had affirmed the decision of the lower district court. It seems that this reading of the statute wasn't any rogue opinion, and instead placed the responsibility of writing clear law back in the hands of Congress.