In-House Regulators: Documenting the Impact of Regulation on Internal Firm Structure

*J.D. 2017, The University of Chicago Law School. Thanks to Christina Bell, Anthony Casey, Brian Feinstein, Annie Gowen, Matt Ladew, Jennifer Nou, and Jonathan Masur for thoughtful comments on earlier drafts. Thanks also to the editors of the Yale Journal on Regulation for their hard work on this piece. All errors and views are, of course, my own.

In a deregulatory environment, what do regulated firms do? The standard assumption is simple: firms revert to their pre-regulatory form. This Essay challenges that basic assumption. Increasingly, regulation is conducted through broad standards foisted on firms to implement internally. Congress articulates a policy goal; agencies enact specific standards for regulated entities; and firms are left to sort out how to comply with such standards. Recent mandates in financial, privacy, and medical regulation exemplify this approach. Despite these changes, scholars have not turned their attention to how this new form of regulation changes the structure of the regulated entity. Using case studies and theoretical insights, this Essay hypothesizes that the structures firms create in a regulated environment will not immediately disappear in a deregulatory world. Rather, they will persist. Modern regulation causes firms to make department-specific investments and centralize information gathering. Firms accomplish this, in part, by increasing the presence of regulatory-related staff. And, once these investments are completed, they will insulate regulatory-related staff from immediate removal in a deregulatory environment. That is, in-house regulators will be sticky. This Essay aims to provide an array of theories to support this phenomenon.


Deregulation is an integral part of President Trump’s agenda.1 Scholars have been quick to point out that there are multiple headwinds to his deregulatory agenda. The Senate stymied efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, for instance.2

Congressional repeal is not Trump’s only option—regulatory changes have focused on agency process. But scholars are also quick to point out that deregulation faces both legal and practical hurdles. In the legal realm, the repeal of rulemaking must go through the standard notice-and-comment process,3 and can be challenged as arbitrary and capricious.4 On the more practical side, deregulation requires the cooperation of a vast bureaucracy consisting of agency employees with their own incentives.5

These hurdles are significant, and I do not dispute them here. However, this Essay’s aim is to recognize regulation’s impact on how firms are organized and suggest that regulation changes firm structure and that this change may persist, albeit mildly, in a deregulatory state. This Essay’s hypothesis is simple: regulation creates extragovernmental hurdles to deregulation by changing how firms are organized.

New regulation brings about observable changes to firms. In areas such as finance, privacy, and medicine, regulation is now accomplished through broad standards that firms must implement themselves. 6 This regulation through delegation requires regulated firms to gain regulatory expertise. To do this, firms hire experts—they invest in processes that will allow them to comply with inherently opaque regulatory pronouncements.

The increased hordes of in-house regulators will “not go gentl[y] into that good night.” 7 That is, they will attempt to fortify their influence within the firm regardless of deregulation. Within the administrative state, this fortification is not surprising, and administrative law scholars have studied it extensively.8 But their focus has generally been inward, looking at administrative agencies and their agents.9 This Essay looks outward, at the agents within regulated entities tasked with regulatory implementation. These in-house regulators have their own incentives and want to keep their jobs even in a deregulatory environment. How they go about accomplishing that has not been systematically documented or studied.

The aim of this Essay, then, is both positive and theoretical. Administrative law is inwardly focused, with scholars turning their lens toward either controls on the administrative state or the structure of the administrative state.10 Often overlooked in this literature is the impact of regulation on the regulated entities.11 Even the scholarly debate surrounding cost-benefit analysis tends to be about its impact on agency discretion.12 Lacking so far in the literature is an account of how regulations impact the structure of regulated entities. To supplement the literature, this Essay first provides a brief overview of the modern regulatory state, documenting two phenomena: the tendency of the administrative state to reject deregulation or, at least, slow a deregulatory tide, and an increasingly standards-based or delegatory administrative state. After briefly highlighting the impact of regulation’s shift on firms, this Essay explores how changes in firm structure may insulate firm regulatory staff in a deregulatory environment.

I. Deregulation Inside the Administrative State: The Impediments Posed by Administrative Agencies

As others have observed, deregulation is not easy. Practical and legal impediments hinder deregulation’s speed13 Before taking up deregulation’s effect on regulated entities, it is important to survey these hurdles. In part, these hurdles may explain this Essay’s hypothesis—if deregulation inside the administrative state proceeds at a lethargic pace, firms may respond accordingly.

Regardless, understanding regulatory effects on firms requires a basic understanding of two key features of the modern administrative state. First, the evolving nature of regulation—the shift from command-and-control regulatory schemes to more deregulatory schemes—changes how firms implement and respond to regulatory pressures.14 Second, in part due to this shift, the significance of practical hurdles to deregulation—such as ossification and burrowing—increases. And more complex, standards-based regulation necessarily places more discretion in bureaucrats whose policy preference may not align with the administration’s.

Bureaucracies can resist outside pressure (or political pressure from the top). To deregulate, agencies must show, via studies, fact-finding, and comments received, that the proposed rule (or proposed removal of a rule) is not a “clear error of judgment.”15 And “[t]he high costs associated with rule change lead[s] to ‘ossification’—a powerful status quo bias.”16 Burrowing serves to increase the costs of deregulation. By placing members of a former president’s staff in career positions within agencies, the view of agency staff aligns with the former, not the current, political order.17 But agency heads must rely on these staffers to conduct the laborious and methodical work required for deregulation to pass judicial muster. The problem for deregulation is obvious—the burrowed staffers will drag their feet on policies they dislike.

These theoretical insights, of course, are currently bumping up against a messy reality. Data suggest that “civil servants are bailing,” contrary to the burrowing hypothesis.18 Political appointees’ requests for budget cuts may exacerbate this exodus.19 Nevertheless, an understanding of the current state of play in how the administrative state regulates and operates has implications for how firms respond. And an outline of current agency process will serve as a backdrop for an understanding of why regulated entities respond the way they do to regulation and deregulation. To that end, this Part first highlights the practical realities of agency administration in a deregulatory environment before documenting the evolving nature of regulation and discussing how the theoretical hurdles to deregulation work in a standards-based regulatory system.

A. Practical Challenges to the Deregulation Inside the Agency

1. Ossification

Changes to regulations must be “based on a consideration of the relevant factors,” and courts will want to see the agencies “examin[ing] the relevant data and articulat[ing] a satisfactory explanation for its action including a rational connection between the facts found and the choice made.”20 In practice, this standard increases the time and cost it takes to repeal or change regulation—it “requir[es] that agencies provide detailed explanations of their behavior, consider viable alternatives, explain departures from past practices, and make policy choices that are reasonable on the merits.”21 Currently, Trump has directed the heads of executive agencies to investigate deregulatory avenues.22 But, even where regulation can be identified and modified, the process of actually doing so will require executive agencies to show, via studies, fact-findings, and comments received, that the proposed rule is not a “clear error of judgment.”23 The high costs associated with rule changes make the status quo sticky.24

Besides the issues raised by State Farm and arbitrary-and-capriciousness review, the cost of notice-and-comment rulemaking remains. “Rule making” as defined by the Administrative Procedure Act,25 includes “repealing a rule,” 26 and even informal rulemaking requires notice and comment.27 Rulemaking is not a painless process. For example, in April 2009, the GAO found that even simple rulemakings can take six months to complete, and that was on the lower end of estimates for agencies. Some agencies, like the FDA, estimated “that a straightforward rulemaking may take up to 3½ to nearly 4 years from initiation to final publication.”28 Despite increasing presidential control of the administrative process, these figures have not changed.29 For instance, in 1992 Professor Thomas O. McGarity reported that rulemaking by the FTC took, on average, five years and three months. 30

And if history is any indicator, the lethargic pace of agency rulemaking is unlikely to change in the future. Ossification, then, has the effect of keeping regulation in place despite expressed deregulatory pressures.

Agency staff exacerbates this ossification because they will be required to carry out Trump’s deregulatory policies. 31 And while agency staff has become, over the past few administrations, “more [of] an extension of the President’s own policy and political agenda . . . no President . . . c[an] . . . supervise so broad a swath of regulatory activity.” 32 At a technical level, staff is required to carry out the studies necessary to survive arbitrary and capriciousness review. If they are antagonistic towards Trump’s deregulatory agenda, they can stall the process. Moreover, while the actual requirements of regulation can be changed, agency staff can protest the deregulatory action by increasing the number of audits or internal investigations at individual financial firms—changing their oversight policy from one of capital requirements to one of more extensive auditing.

Finally, at the end of a presidential administration, agencies may finalize a tremendous amount of rules in order to stay the hand of the new president.33 This can create hurdles for the new president for the reasons discussed above—changing a rule requires costly and time-consuming rulemaking. And ossified rules present a challenge for regulated entities in that political rhetoric does not immediately translate into laxer regulatory schemes. For regulations that require large capital investments, this can be seen as a positive—ensuring regulated parties that the regulatory scheme will not be upended before the return on their investments are realized.34 But for structural regulation—such as bank capital requirements or privacy concerns—ossification imposes costs and limitations on firms far after the administration has deemed those costs unwarranted.

2. Burrowing

Just as new rules are promulgated at the end of a presidential administration, so too do abrupt staffing changes occur. At the end of President Clinton’s administration, over “one hundred political appointees moved to civil service positions35 Furthermore, “[o]utgoing political appointees may also hire significant numbers of civil servants or promote individuals to key supervisory positions inside the agency, [] with an eye to ensuring that the outgoing administration’s viewpoints and priorities remain represented within the agency.”36

Junking up an agency with those sympathetic to an outgoing president’s point of view imposes costs on the new administration. Antagonistic staff can hamper agency heads from engaging in a cohesive policy strategy. Moreover, agency staff is usually tasked with identifying the agency’s agenda or the pathways through which the political agenda can be accomplished.37 This subversive behavior can be “passive,” by letting deadlines slip, dragging out assignments, or overloading political appointees with needless information to stall agency activity.38 Of course, this subversion can also take an active form through leaks and other signs of disagreement. Like the legal hurdles to deregulation, these too can be overcome by a presidential administration bent on deregulating. But it is important to note that they increase the costs and time to deregulate in ways that may harm the effort globally.

Agency burrowing can also take the form of enforcement shifting whereby agency staff antagonistic towards the political views of the president increases other forms of regulatory burdens (e.g., audits or inspections) due to a perceived decline in top-down regulation. This is not merely a theoretical exercise. Scholars have observed that the rank-and-file agency staff responds to what they perceive as negative changes in policy.39 For instance, in response to President Ronald Reagan’s “outright assault . . . on environmental programs” and a decline in the agency’s budget, the Environmental Protection Agency’s monitoring and abatement activity surprisingly increased during the early part of the Reagan administration.40 The EPA was able to successfully circumvent parts of Reagan’s assault on environmental regulations because the “bureaucratic interest in shaping policy outputs” is sometimes strong enough to overcome presidential control.41 Ultimately, presidential administrations can impact policy, but agencies themselves are “responsible for much of the . . . public policy” implementation.42

This too has obvious deleterious effects on regulated entities. While official regulation is being slowly repealed, firms may be exposed to increased regulatory action through audits and other informal regulatory processes. This mismatch creates uncertainty that makes it difficult for firms to plan ahead. Although they can see formal deregulation occurring and plan investment changes accordingly, they simultaneously see an increased need to spend more time working with regulators. Firms may be accustomed to such bipolar regulatory responses, but they nonetheless force internal regulatory processes to persist within firms.

3. Prosecutorial Discretion

Finally, agencies—and their staff—possess extraordinary discretion when bringing enforcement actions. As SEC v. Chenery Corporation 43 tells us, agencies may choose between rules and adjudication in creating policy positions. But that does not end the story. After Heckler v. Chaney, 44 an agency’s decision to not bring enforcement action—as well as its decision to bring enforcement action—is effectively unreviewable. Except for the fact that the agency personnel bringing the enforcement action must be separated from those adjudicating the action45 agency personnel have complete discretion to bring enforcement actions.

Traditionally, enforcement was an after-thought in terms of agency policy—the focus on rulemaking either through notice and comment or adjudication. But increasingly, agencies have used enforcement—or the threat of enforcement—to regulate entities in ways that may expand the regulator’s purview or the agency’s policy portfolio46 The lengthy procedural processes that the APA and the courts have foisted on agency rulemaking makes regulation via enforcement attractive—the courts have limited review of these decisions, and settlement agreements allow for tailored enforcement of individual firms.

Regulation through enforcement and settlement also has ripple effects on other firms in the industry. The potential for enforcement threats, especially after enforcement against a similar firm has been observed, may change how firms behave. If firms in an industry observe an agency threatening enforcement against a competitor for a practice that might be prohibited by current regulation, they may change their policies in anticipation47 The cost of litigating against the agency is high and generally unrecoverable. So a firm must balance the cost of litigating (and the probability-adjusted cost of losing that litigation) against the cost of compliance. In that sense, it is easy to see why firms settle and other firms comply with the thrust of the settlement ex post.

Especially as regulation has become more standards-based48 the potential to expand the scope of regulation through the threat of enforcement increases. Of course, given the relative newness of enforcement through settlement, the persistence of this approach has not been studied. It may cut both ways. Appointed enforcement chiefs can stop bringing enforcement actions and can allow firms to stop complying with previously signed DPAs or stop ongoing litigation and investigation.49 On the other hand, burrowing may allow for ongoing minor enforcements and the continued enforcement of settlements. And even for deregulatory administrations, high-level enforcements may be politically attractive.

B. The Evolving Nature of Regulation

“[P]rivate firms increasingly exercise regulatory discretion of the type delegated to agencies.” 50 regulation’s goals have become more complex, regulators have shifted their focus from command-and-control directives to more performance-based models51 This is not a recent phenomenon. President Clinton required that agencies, “to the extent feasible, specify performance objectives, rather than specifying the behavior or manner of compliance that regulated entities must adopt.”52

Historically, regulators employed “technology-based” regulation that “intervene[d] in the acting stage, specifying technologies to be used or steps to be followed53 But increasingly, regulators are employing “performance-based” and “management-based” regulatory schemes. “Performance-based approaches intervene at the output stage, specifying social outputs that must (or must not) be attained. In contrast, management-based approaches intervene at the planning stage, compelling regulated organizations to improve their internal management so as to increase the achievement of public goals.”54

For example, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Reactor Oversight Process does not mandate particular technologies or processes. Rather, it relies on a bevy of performance indicators to “assess the safety and security performance of operating commercial nuclear power plants.”55 Mandating specific technologies risks becoming outdated or depresses innovation, so the agency allows plants to conduct their operations organically. Inspections are conducted annually to observe the plant’s conditions and understand any trends or emerging risks, but the design and implementation of a safety and soundness program is left to the individual plants.56

Another “prominent example is the No Child Left Behind Act,” which “requires schools to achieve specified academic results as measured by a variety of indicators.”57 No Child Left Behind gave discretion to individual schools districts—they could choose what strategy, technologies, and processes worked best to accomplish the Act’s broad goals.

These are not isolated examples. Financial regulation, environmental regulation, and food safety regulation, to name a few, allocate some regulatory authority to the regulated entities.58 A full review of the regulatory shift is outside the scope of this Essay, but the examples help change the general perspective of what regulation is, especially as it relates to regulated entities. Typically, regulation is thought of as a binary—build X to decrease carbon emissions, add Y to cars to make them safer—but in more complex industries, the regulation is more prudential—implement changes to make the financial system safer, ensure that users’ data is protected and private, consider the efficacy of medical procedures on a hospital’s treatment policies. This shift is a necessary part of this Essay’s thesis.

Take, for example, the canonical case of Motor Vehicles Manufacturers Association v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company.59 The fight in that case was over whether seatbelts or airbags would be installed in cars (and when)—a binary outcome. Either car manufacturers would have to invest capital to change their production process or they wouldn’t. But once they changed the process, there would be no thought about it—the capital invested, the regulation was effectively implemented. Modern regulatory schemes have changed this binary outcome. To use a highly politicized example, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,60 requires the development of a National Quality Strategy to promote efficiency and efficacy of healthcare delivery.61 That is not a binary outcome for insurers and healthcare providers—it requires these firms to build internal units that can collect data, analyze the data, and propose recommendations (in addition to thinking about what data is valuable). These changes in regulatory strategy affect how firms structure their responses to regulation and, ultimately, may have persistent effects on firms’ structure even in a deregulatory environment.

II. Firm Responses to Regulation: Theories of Institutional Change in Response to Deregulatory Pressures

Firms respond to regulatory pressures. But missing from recent analysis is an understanding of how more complex, bottom-up regulation affects firm structure. Structure matters. Investment in a plant can be abandoned if deregulation makes its operation inefficient or unnecessary. But structure dictates how decisions are made. Responding to traditional, top-down regulation is easy: firms purchase the required equipment or invest in the necessary preventative apparatus. In essence, it is binary and likely does not require much change to current processes or procedures. For instance, when the FDA mandates that warnings be in a certain sized font,62 pharmaceutical manufactures change the label, but they do not change their research processes. But adhering to more complex regulation, such as the Federal Reserve requiring systemically important financial institutions conduct stress tests on their assets, requires increased staff, centralization of information, and coordination inside the firm. Responding to regulation by structurally changing organizational processes may fundamentally alert the organization and allow these changes to persist in the absence of regulation. To make that point clear, this Essay first proceeds by highlighting financial firms’ responses to Dodd-Frank through related antidotes. This Essay then turns to the heart of the matter—providing several theories of institutional change that will keep internal firm structures changed in the absence of regulation.

A. Firm Responses to Increased Regulation Through the Lens of Dodd-Frank

After the passage of Dodd-Frank, the rise of the regulatory, risk, and compliance staffs at financial institutions has been stunning. Or, as Bloomberg put it, the last few years have witnessed “the [r]ise of the [c]ompliance [g]uru.”63 For instance, JPMorgan Chase, the largest US bank by assets,64 increased the number of in-house regulators by over seventy-five percent from 2011 to 2015.65 JPMorgan is not an isolated example—other financial institutions have seen a similar rise in the number of staff devoted to regulation, risk, and compliance. At Goldman Sachs, in just one year, “[t]otal staff increased 8% . . . primarily due to . . . continued investment in regulatory compliance.”66 Perhaps more tellingly, it is becoming more difficult to staff these types of jobs, with senior compliance officers complaining of “staffing challenges.”67 Even non-US banks are increasing the size of their internal regulatory staff—by 2014, one-in-ten HSBC employees was an in-house regulator.68 Moreover, based on a 2016 survey of bank chief risk officers and other senior in-house regulators, “the upward [hiring] trend will likely continue overall, as the majority of firms expect to add more professionals to headcount in the next year.”69

Regulatory demands have driven most of the increases in in-house regulator headcount. But this unprecedented growth has been coupled with increased institutionalization of these functions. For instance, prior to 2008, the Chief Risk Officer at Morgan Stanley reported solely to the Chief Executive Officer.70 But now the Chief Risk Officer reports directly to both the Board of Directors and the CEO.71 A similar transition has occurred at Citigroup, where the Chief Risk Officer now “has regular and unrestricted access to the Risk Management Committee of the Board.”72 In perhaps a greater transformation, the Chief Risk Officer of Goldman Sachs previously reported to senior management (including the CEO, President, and CFO).73 Now Goldman’s Chief Risk Officer reports to both the CEO and the Board of Directors.74

Banks responded to Dodd-Frank in predictable ways—regulated entities generally seek to comply with new rules. But most scholars assume that firms will respond to deregulation in the same predictable way, by deconstructing the regulatory apparatus they created internally. The basic understanding of firms as profit-maximizing machines—and managers as agents for shareholders focused on earnings—highlights why this understanding is persuasive. This view of firms is present in both administrative law and corporate law literatures.75

Most of the current literature on firm regulatory response is focused on mandates—forced firm behavior.76 It does not seek to explain how complex, standards-based regulatory frameworks change regulated entities and cannot explain their response to deregulation. It suggests that sunk costs and switching costs may make singular investments or choices stable in a deregulatory environment77 That theory has some purchase in this context—the specter of regulations’ return poses switching costs—but is not robust in the presence of most modern regulatory schemes. Dodd-Frank required financial firms to hire an enormous amount of regulatory staff and was enormously costly,78 but the switching costs seem limited—laying off the regulatory staff may have psychic costs, but is otherwise a profitable move.

Cutting against that logic, I suggest that forces inside and outside the firm moderate the tendency to “deregulate” inside the firm. Indeed, Judge Richard Posner has noticed, “[d]eregulation does not bring about automatic changes in firm behavior. It changes the incentives facing management, and managers differ in their ability to respond intelligently to changes in incentives.”79 Below, I suggest several theories that may explain why firms will not respond to deregulation as expected. These theories are not mutually exclusive and some are more likely to be present in certain types of industries. Although some empirical evidence “suggests that older firms, firms that were profitable before deregulation, and family firms are apt to be more sluggish in responding to the challenges of deregulation than firms having the opposite attributes80 limited work has been done to construct theoretical arguments explaining that sluggishness.

The point is not to draw absolute conclusions about how firms will react; rather, the aim is positive and theoretical—to present a series of theories that punch against prevailing wisdom. Certainly more study of individual firms and industries will be necessary to test these theories, but they suggest prevailing wisdom may be incomplete.

B. Internal Forces of Regulatory Inertia

1. Agency Costs

Jensen and Meckling revolutionized corporate governance by conceptualizing firms as a nexus of contracts. A firm—in their view—“is a legal fiction which serves as a focus for a complex process in which the conflicting objectives of individuals . . . are brought into equilibrium with a framework of contractual relations.”81 The result of these contracts—between a principal, owner and agent, manager—is agency costs. Agency costs arise from the divergent interests of the principal and the agent. An owner has delegated responsibility of the firm to the manager. The owner wants the manager to maximize profits, but the manager is striving to maximize her compensation, potentially to the detriment of the owner. And, as the gap between principal and agent grows, so does this relationship’s agency costs.82

Agency costs exist not just at the owner–manager level, but also between senior and junior managers.83 As such, agency costs may stymie managers attempting to trim the size of their firm’s regulatory staff in a deregulatory environment. Regulatory staff has great autonomy and, within the firm, is expert on its processes and regulatory developments. In a deregulatory environment, they can use this expertise to their advantage. Ossification, burrowing, and prosecutorial discretion slows deregulatory rhetoric from directly translating to reduced regulatory burdens.84 While senior managers may want to reduce regulatory staff, the regulatory staff wants to maintain its size, stature, and salary. But because senior managers have less expertise in the guts of regulation, in-house regulators can use their expertise—coupled with the technicalities around ossification and the like—to encourage managers to reassess their initial inclinations.

Highlighting recent regulatory actions that occur in a deregulatory environment could be one technique regulatory staff employs to mitigate management’s view on deregulation. Even though presidential rhetoric is favorable, burrowing and prosecutorial discretion create enforcement opportunities that in-house regulators can seize. Take, for example, the Federal Reserve’s recent treatment of Wells Fargo. Because of regulatory lapses in the past, in February of 2018, the Federal Reserve fined Wells Fargo and prevented them from expanding until the issues are fixed.85

Bank compliance staff can employ this example should their managers seek to trim staff because of deregulatory presidential rhetoric. All else equal, compliance staff prefer to preserve their jobs than increase bank profits, so they can use the Wells Fargo example to argue that their positions are valuable—the staff may still be able to regulate despite top-down guidance. Moreover, because their knowledge of the regulatory landscape is greater than senior management’s, the regulatory staff can use burrowing and prosecutorial discretion to their advantage. They can assert that the Wells Fargo example is not an anomaly, but the result of regulatory resistance that will persist even as deregulation makes its way through the ossified process.

And despite agency costs theory’s prescription to centralize decision-making,86 management theory and practice increasingly push firms to decentralize decision-making.87 Decentralization has a pernicious downside—divisions will seek rents. This rent-seeking behavior can manifest itself in increased salaries or, more likely, larger budgets.88 Scharfstein and Stein develop a two-tier model of agency costs—agency costs between investor and manager, and manager and division heads.89 To maintain the division heads of weaker divisions, they predict that the manager will “pay” them with increased budgets, rather than increased salary. Weaker divisions will always rent seek while stronger divisions will not, and to retain the division head, the manager will “tilt the capital budget in his direction.”90 That is optimal for both the manager—who prefers to pay in capital investment rather than salary—and the division head.

The theory applies to in-house regulators. The division head—the Chief Risk Officer, the Chief Privacy Officer—will rent-seek in a deregulatory environment because their divisions will be “weaker” all else equal. The manager cannot do away with the division head, but will prefer to expand his budget rather than pay cash wages. In theory, cash wages reduce the manager’s flexibility to pay himself and others, but the “successful” units can subsidize the capital investment in the weaker division without harming the manager’s cash flexibility.

Theory aside, Scharfstein and Stein suggest that the agency costs that afflict managers and division units manifest themselves in greater budgets for the weaker units. For in-house regulators, this creates a type of one-way ratchet.91 In times of increasing regulation, firms spend capital to comply. But in deregulatory environments, rent seeking causes firms to undercompensate in-house regulators in real terms, but overinvest in in-house regulators (that is, in-house regulator’s may see their budgets grow while their wages stagnate). Agency costs theory, then, supports the notion that deregulation does not swiftly flow through firms—the internal dynamics of firms belie an immediate reduction in the size and sophistication of the firm’s regulatory staff.

2. Manager-Specific Investments

Managers are subject to pressures that align their interest with that of shareholders. The board and other senior leaders monitor managers for compliance with their profit-maximizing strategy. Moreover, the active labor market also reigns in a manager’s tendency to shirk, that is act in a way that is beneficial to her but to the shareholders’ detriment.

But these mechanisms are imperfect. Managers often act in self-interested ways. One theory for this is managerial entrenchment—the idea that managers make specific investments that subsequently make them “valuable to shareholders and costly to replace.”92 entrenchment may occur at any level of the organization. “A secretary, for example, has an incentive to design ways of keeping records or computer files that are very costly for anyone else to figure out.”93

In the mine-run case of entrenchment, boards (or anyone with oversight authority) allow managers to make entrenching investments because they are “insufficiently well informed to evaluate the investment, or because board members approve of the manager’s basic corporate strategy.”94 This may prove especially troublesome in the regulatory context, as boards cannot protect themselves from such investments. New regulation forces firms to invest in new, specific functions, and out of necessity, those implementing the regulation within the firm will be best positioned to determine how to invest. This creates an incentive for in-house regulators to invest inefficiently, that is invest to entrench.

Recent examples from financial regulation are apt. As financial regulators have placed increased demand on firms to oversee the risks being taken and develop comprehensive systems to analyze and monitor these risks, the in-house regulators tasked with this project have seen their staff and budgets balloon. Off-the-cuff risk management techniques traditionally done on trading desks moved to sophisticated risk tracking systems done by in-house regulators. The models and data that these systems spit-out is opaque—knowledge of risk metrics and other ideas is a necessary prerequisite to understanding what is going on. In the presence of regulation, the in-house regulators have made themselves valuable because they have built systems that they have a comparative advantage at understanding and decoding. Moreover, the centralization has meant that those on the trading desks that historically were called upon to do the quick-and-dirty risk management tasks of yore, no longer exist or have the expertise to do so. Therefore, investment in specific technology has increased the value of in-house regulators and made them more difficult to get rid of even in a deregulatory universe.

Of course, if the regulatory function is no longer valuable in a deregulatory universe, these investments will not lead to entrenchment—managers may eliminate the investments.95 But modern regulation’s scope has pervasive effects on firm operations. As the example above illustrates, the investments that in-house regulators make change how the firm itself is organized and operates. In line with the manager-specific investment thesis, in-house regulators will overinvest in systems that provide them with control over information or other inputs into firm operations. Normally, Boards would curtail overinvestment, but because of regulation’s complexity, they may not have the tools to properly account for what is needed, and the risk of undercompliance is high (and Boards may well be risk averse when it comes to compliance). The traditional check on manager-specific investments is muted in the regulatory landscape because the person with the most information about costs—the in-house regulator—has an incentive to inflate the costs to entrench herself and her staff.

3. Specific Knowledge, Centralization, and Switching Costs

“[M]anagement-based regulation will typically require information collection.”96 This is not surprising; modern regulation emphasizes monitoring and modeling—approaches that require centralized information collection. But this centralization may make in-house regulators sticky.

Another theory of the firm posits that it is an institutional arrangement to integrate the individuals’ knowledge.97 Knowledge is not held by the firm, but rather by individuals employed by the firm. Some of that knowledge is easily transferable (e.g., the number of employees in Human Resources or the price of a necessary input per a contract with the supplier). But most valuable knowledge is not easily communicated or transferable—“[t]acit knowledge is revealed through its application.”98

Much of the knowledge housed in the minds of in-house regulators is this less transferable knowledge. The ability to monitor, analyze, and synthesize data is not easily transferred, even if the data itself is easily communicated. Moreover, decision making housed in firm regulatory departments is a classic form of tacit knowledge—the combinations of data that each situation requires taking into account is not routine and can only be developed through use.99

Firm production requires the integration of multiple people’s knowledge. As in-house regulators emerge or grow, they are likely to centralize tasks—and thus knowledge—in themselves. This makes them essential components of firm production. Once “production requires the integration of many people’s specialist knowledge, the key of efficiency is to achieve effective integration while minimizing knowledge transfer through cross-learning by organizational members.”100 Dependence on in-house regulators’ knowledge makes them a valuable component of production. Deregulation should, thus, not have as great an impact as previously imagined because, although regulatory responsibilities are one component of their tasks and their origin, the integration of their knowledge into firm production means that they are now a more essential component of firm production. The firm’s ability to aggregate knowledge towards a productive means is what makes it competitive and profitable. Once in-house regulators are part of the knowledge aggregation process, removing them may change the firm’s production function and impact profitability.

After Dodd-Frank, financial firms were required to stress test their entire portfolios annually for the Federal Reserve. As discussed above, this herculean effort required centralizing data—and the ability to understand, manipulate, and synthesize that data—in risk departments. But this knowledge is valuable for everyday production. The profitability of a trade depends on whether it will offset overall risk, and now risk departments are central to understanding the complexity of a firm’s portfolio.

Moreover, the most efficient way to organize knowledge in a hierarchical organization is through bureaucracy.101 “In the knowledge-based firm, rules and directives exist to facilitate knowledge integration; their source is specialist expertise which is distributed throughout the organization.”102 Generally, in-house regulators are viewed as setting up procedures and protocols that facilitate compliance. But these same procedures are used to integrate knowledge across the firm—they exist not just to satisfy compliance but to structure knowledge integration to coordinate production.

The neoclassical retort to this line of reasoning is simple: if these processes and groups were valuable before regulation, they would have existed. Perhaps, but internal efficiency must be balanced against the high switching cost of knowledge transfer. Of course, it may be the case that the structure of firms ex ante was efficient, but once forced to restructure by regulation, the unraveling of the structure in a deregulatory universe imposes switching costs that may mitigate any efficiency gains that materialized in the previous organizational form.

4. Professionalization, Advocacy, and Culture

Regulating a firm requires expertise, and in-house regulators have become increasingly professionalized. The oft-maligned revolving door is one manifestation of professionalization—in-house regulators’ expertise is difficult to acquire and ex-regulators may be best positioned to understand in-house regulators’ roles. Regulation may also drive professionalization.103 Isolating or signaling out specific expertise may lead individuals across firms to associate. For example, privacy officers became increasingly professionalized after regulation encouraged firms to hire more of them.104

But increased professionalization has a downside for organization: it creates individual tension between professional norms and organizational priorities.105 Because most in-house regulators are, necessarily, somewhat separated from the other operations of the firm, they may develop a professional ethos or culture focused on attaining their perceived goal rather than focusing on optimizing firm goals. Given the headwinds to downsizing in-house regulators, the establishment of a culture of compliance not only leaves the in-house regulators in place but also leaves traces of the regulatory mandate in place.106

This is not to say that in-house regulators won’t change their culture or focus in a deregulatory environment—over time, they will respond to the incentive scheme that exists. And environmental factors may contribute. For example, financial risk managers and compliance professionals may be more likely to develop a culture of compliance because they co-located—most of these professionals live in the same few metropolitan areas. But there may be less cross-industry cultural development in privacy professionals or hospital administrators because of their geographic diversity. In any event, change may be slow, and given deregulation in fact already lags deregulatory rhetoric, the shadow of regulation in a deregulatory universe may be longer than previously anticipated. Indeed, it may outlast the administration proposing the deregulation, at which point the future fear of regulation may become another force that creates persistence among in-house regulators (see below).

5. Repositioning the Regulatory Agenda

What’s more, regulatory staff may entrench themselves by repositioning their role. What starts out as a regulatory mandate becomes a competitive advantage.

Take, for example, State Street’s “Fearless Girl,” the bronze statue of a young woman placed in front of the notorious Wall Street Bull.107 By building the statue, State Street signaled its commitment to employing its power to increase diversity on corporate boards. State Street may have legitimate business reasons for doing so,108 but it also bolstered State Street’s progressive reputation and likely aided its quest to manage pension and endowment assets.109

Regulation, in part, led to this approach. In its 2003 rule on Proxy Voting by Investment Advisors,110 the SEC issued regulations that required Investment Advisors, like State Street, to vote in the best interest of their shareholders. Most large investment managers, including State Street, created dedicated corporate governance groups to consider how to vote the shares State Street controlled.111

The policy goal behind the regulation is simple. If Investment Advisors consider only the interest of shareholders when voting, they will use their considerable power to increase the value of the firms that their shareholders are invested in. But, at State Street at least, this regulatory function was able to use its newfound expertise and power to reposition the regulatory function. Because of the nebulous nature of what is in the best interest of the shareholders, the corporate governance group was able to reposition itself as part of the sales force—using its votes to signal State Street’s values to current and future clients.

Although there is currently no proposal to remove the regulation that started this chain reaction, the group at State Street would likely persist even if that regulation were withdrawn. This reposition of the regulatory enterprise represents another way that in-house regulators attempt to entrench themselves. And in the State Street example, the corporate governance group gains more resources and maintains most of the group’s mission—voting in the interest of shareholders—while ensuring their future even in a deregulatory environment.

Empirical evidence suggests that board diversity has positive shareholder returns.112 But even if those empirical results are not robust, State Street’s governance team may be avoiding the regulatory mission with regard to some corporate governance decisions—for example, supporting directors on the basis of their gender—while accumulating resources and credibility with respect to its original mission. In this sense, if in-house regulators can reposition some of their tools to the firm’s benefit, it may allow them to continue to exercise most of the regulatory discretion they were initially given despite deregulatory pressures.

State Street’s “Fearless Girl” is not an isolated example. Energy firms have advertised how environmentally friendly they are.113 Similarly, the internal group driving this started because of regulatory pressure, but the group was able to reposition itself as a selling point to some clients—it turned regulatory compliance into a competitive advantage. This creates a feedback loop that furthers entrenchment. It may be that sales teams are expropriating the in-house regulators’ work for sales, but that does not undercut the point. If revenue-generating units perceive in-house regulators as valuable, they will continue to support internal regulatory efforts. Indeed, the more symbiotic the relationship becomes, the more sales goals may change how the in-house regulators operate and shift the sales teams dialogue with clients around how in-house regulators are a value-driver for clients. In part related to external reporting requirements discussed above, once clients are focused on this attribute, the firm will be loath to disband the group—it makes the group a profit center.

6. Regulatory Persistence as a Barrier to Entry

Finally, regulated industries may act strategically in keeping regulation to deter new entrants into the field. High compliance costs raise the cost of new entry and reduce the number of potential entrants. A reduction in potential entrants allows an industry to operate at higher profits than they would otherwise achieve, and thwarts threats to their business model.114

Even in deregulatory environments, firms may use the professionalization of in-house regulators to increase barriers to entry. This insight combines two forces of in-house regulatory persistence: repositioning and professionalization. For instance, privacy protections can be seen not just as a compliance function but as a source of value—customers are more comfortable transacting with a company that has robust privacy protections. In the technology space, this may allow incumbents to increase the costs for new entrants. “Don’t give your data to New Company because they do not have robust protections,” can be a persuasive way to transfer industry professionalization into a barrier to entry, increasing profitability for incumbents.115

This isn’t hypothetical. For example, industry experts expect Google and Facebook to benefit from Europe’s new privacy regulation, at the expense of smaller online advertising firms.116 Likewise, the Affordable Care Act gave hospitals and other healthcare organization an incentive to merge—larger organization can amortize regulatory costs over a larger sales base.117

C. External Forces of Regulatory Inertia

1. Board Risk Taking and Caremark Duties

Under Delaware law, boards have a duty to monitor the firm. That is, the board must “exercise a good faith judgment that the corporation’s information and reporting system is in concept and design adequate to assure the board that appropriate information will come to its attention in a timely manner as a matter of ordinary operations, so that it may satisfy its responsibility.”118 In-house regulators further this mission, and increased regulation gives them greater access to the board. Chief Risk Officers of financial firms now report directly, and regularly, to the board, as do privacy leaders.119

In 2006, the Delaware Supreme Court affirmed the Board’s duty to monitor under Caremark stating that:

Caremark articulates the necessary conditions predicate for director oversight liability: (a) the directors utterly failed to implement any reporting or information system or controls; or (b) having implemented such a system or controls, consciously failed to monitor or oversee its operations thus disabling themselves from being informed of risks or problems requiring their attention. In either case, imposition of liability requires a showing that the directors knew that they were not discharging their fiduciary obligations. Where directors fail to act in the face of a known duty to act, thereby demonstrating a conscious disregard for their responsibilities, they breach their duty of loyalty by failing to discharge that fiduciary obligation in good faith.120

While Caremark appears to be a robust doctrine when spelled out on its terms, it is severely limited. For instance, in 2009, Chancellor Chandler dismissed a claim against the Citigroup Board for failure to monitor. The plaintiffs alleged a violation of the Board’s Caremark duty for failure to monitor risk in Citigroup’s subprime mortgage portfolio.121 The court saw these claims as attempting to hold the directors liable for business decisions, and quickly dismissed the claim.122

Given the limited nature of the doctrine, Caremark may not create enough incentive for the board to retain in-house regulators in a deregulatory environment. However, to overcome a Caremark claim, directors “must make sure their risk oversight duties are met.”123 And directors familiar with only the presence of a duty to monitor, but not the fine gradations of the doctrine, will likely err on the side of additional monitoring and reporting to ensure compliance. As such, once a monitoring system is put into place, it may act as a one-way ratchet—the Board will be unlikely to remove the system because it fears that it may subject it to Caremark liability under the first doctrinal hook (failure to establish an adequate monitoring system). While these incentives may not be especially powerful, they present another avenue through which the board may encourage the maintenance of in-house regulators.

2. Reputation and External Reporting Pressures

Caremark’s oversight duty is not the only external pressure on boards and management to perpetuate regulatory staffs’ existence in a deregulatory environment. Just as internal actors rely on information produced by in-house regulators, external actors also rely on it. Privacy officers are responsible for producing and refining a firm’s privacy policy—a key document that the media and watchdog groups use to inform consumers.124 Similarly, hospitals are now able to provide more precise information to ratings organizations and potential donors.

Some legal regimes—like securities law—mandate disclosure. But there are non-legal explanations for revealing information. Reducing information asymmetry between management and the market reduces a firm’s cost of capital and enhances the liquidity of the firm’s securities.125 The release of information by one firm has two immediate effects. First, it pressures other firms to release similar information, else those interested will assume the worse. Second, it puts pressure on the firm to continue to disclose the information, else interested parties will assume nondisclosure reflects negatively on the firm.

Therefore, external reliance on information produced by in-house regulators can occur even absent a firm’s affirmative disclosure. Once one firm within an industry discloses, pressure on others will grow to disclose similar information.126 And if the information is dynamic—that is, it changes overtime—reliance interests will pressure the firm for continued reliance else a negative inference is drawn about the firm.

For example, bank equity analysts have started to drill down on capital and risk numbers in recent years. Because firms rely on the in-house regulators to supply these numbers, their value to management increases as external parties become more-and-more reliant on this information. Several financial firms have started to release forward guidance on their risk plans, and firms that did not have been chided by equity analysts.127 Irrespective of the regulatory environment, equity analysts strive to collect a full picture of the firm, which requires the information supplied by in-house regulators. Moreover, firms may have an incentive to disclose information to equity analysts, as those firms that disclose more tend to have higher returns, likely because investors’ expectations were appropriately calibrated.128 Reliance by third parties on information supplied by in-house regulators can bolster the credibility, importance, and, ultimately, resilience of in-house regulators in a deregulatory environment.

3. The Revolving Door and the Human Capital Hypothesis

The revolving door may also connect prosecutorial discretion with firm regulatory staff entrenchment. The human capital hypothesis posits that future job prospects will motivate regulators to regulate aggressively to show off their expertise and talents. In a deregulatory administration, regulators may foresee their future job prospects thinning. The alternative revolving door hypothesis—the rent seeking hypothesis in which regulators attempt to curry favor with regulated firms by going easy on them—is no longer attractive to regulators. Lax enforcement will not translate into a job if deregulation occurs—the regulator’s expertise won’t be needed. As a result, deregulatory rhetoric may, at least in the short-run, lead to more aggressive enforcement. Although generally thought to be explained by resistance, the EPA’s increased enforcement of environmental regulations after Reagan became president may reveal that deregulatory rhetoric hones regulators to focus on their future prospects.129

This goes back to the earlier point that agency costs allow in-house regulators to overstate their value in a deregulatory environment through examples of ongoing regulation. But these examples, then, are not flukes—they are likely systematic in a deregulatory environment. In many ways, the rent-seeking is recursive. As regulation increases, the regulators may have mixed incentives and pursue either more aggressive regulation (the human capital thesis) or less aggressive regulation (the revolving door hypothesis). In any event, in-house regulators have an incentive to communicate that harshness of regulation (regardless of the regulator’s actions).130 Therefore, in times of regulatory formation, the size and stature of in-house regulatory departments increases.

But then in deregulatory periods, regulators’ incentives change, and they are more likely to pursue aggressive regulation. The Wells Fargo example above might be an expected repercussion of deregulatory rhetoric, not an insolated, idiosyncratic example. In that case, in-house regulators have ready experiences to bring to bear on keeping their size (if not their stature). Although managers may observe deregulatory rhetoric, their inability to monitor in-house regulators (and the changed incentives of regulators) means that they may be more likely to defer.131

Again, this is not to say the persistence is infinite. Eventually, deregulation will become a reality and regulators will no longer be equipped with the tools to be aggressive (even if they are incentivized to be so). So, over time, in-house regulators will have less ammunition to fight off impending decreases in size and stature. The point, again, is not to posit infinite persistence but to show the time lag between rhetoric and on-the-ground change is burdened not just by administrative barriers but also by how those barriers can encourage and aid in-house regulators.

Future Regulatory Uncertainty

Regulated firms also face the possible return of regulation. Agencies need a commitment mechanism to regulate effectively into the future.132 The same impulse may exist with deregulation. In the regulatory context, regulated entities use administrative processes, like notice and comment, and political pressure, through lobbying, to mitigate regulation’s impact.133 In anticipation of the regulation, firms have rewired their operations to conform ex ante.

This same dynamic may hedge against deregulation’s immediacy within firm. In the event regulation returns, firms want the ability to shape regulation. They can do this by maintaining some in-house regulators. New regulation generally looks to the private sector for models,134 so when regulation reappears, regulated firms lobby to have the regulatory scheme fit their existing program. For this to work, they need some level of compliance—without any compliance, they will lack credibility in the face of regulatory pressures. As such, maintaining in-house regulators can be thought of as an affirmative future defense to the return of regulatory pressures.

Just as the revolving door may increase regulatory aggressiveness immediately following deregulatory rhetoric, future regulatory uncertainty may encourage firms to maintain regulatory staffs. Although presently in a deregulatory environment, firms know that they are just one election, appointment, or scandal away from regulation’s return. Swiftly returning to a regulatory environment requires experts, and firms may well want to maintain regulatory staff to hedge against the return of regulation. Their in-house regulators will be best positioned to take up the mantle of regulation, ensuring that the regulation isn’t too onerous, and they will understand the challenges firms actually face. Gutting in-house regulators in a deregulatory, but uncertain, environment depletes the firm’s regulatory expertise. In the event that expertise becomes valuable again, the underinvested firm will have to spend time and resources reacquiring this knowledge.

Moreover, uncertainty is, unexpectedly, stabilizing. Often, commentators talk about uncertainty as a drag on future investment—firms are loath to invest in the future if they cannot accurately anticipate future constraints or pressures on their operations. But the same force is at work in divesting. In an uncertain environment, removing regulatory staff is just as risky as hiring more regulatory staff.

Finally, in light of potential regulatory return, firm managers may fall into the sunk cost fallacy—the time and money spent on developing in-house regulators may make them averse to gutting the program at the hint of deregulation. Moreover, the cost of decreasing the program—severance, loss of knowledge, etc.—may future exacerbate this thinking. That is not to say it cannot be overcome; just that it creates a behavioral barrier that, in conjunction with other barriers, may exacerbate the tendency to retain in-house regulators.


Economic and sociological theory suggest that the response of regulated entities to deregulation will not be swift. If anything, it will be slow, plodding, and constrained by a host of internal and external forces. The effect on various companies and industries will depend on a variety of factors—firm size, the remaining regulatory burden, and the length of previous regulation, to name a few.

This evaluation does suggest regulation that causes firms to centralize and create internal and external dependencies on in-house regulators will be more persistent. Of course, deregulation may change the motivation and force of in-house regulations. For instance, as financial deregulation continues, risk managers will have less of a bludgeon to push back on risky trades—no longer will the regulatory mandate be a fait accompli to stop risky activity. But those same risk managers will continue to be present in the firm. Their participation in decision-making persists, and the new tools and processes developed to monitor and manage risk continue. Financial firms may get riskier in a deregulatory environment, but their internal structure may be less risky than in the pre-regulatory environment. In that way, regulation persists because of its impact on firm structure.

These theories may not operate simultaneously in all firms in all industries. But, from these theories, hypotheses can be formed and tested. Empirical analysis and case-study methods can help determine which pathways are most likely to make in-house regulators stick, and how those forces operate in different firms and industries. And these insights may impact how agencies conduct cost-benefit analysis, or suggest changes in regulatory design at both the congressional and agency level. Nevertheless, thinking about deregulatory inertia outside the administrative state paints a more realistic and multifaceted picture of how organization respond to the ebbs and flows of regulatory change.


Some may view this Essay’s predictions as positive—the persistence of regulation ensures ongoing safety and soundness in a deregulatory environment. Others may see the prediction as another argument against the administrative state. In any event, this Essay aims to be an opening salvo in thinking about regulatory persistence outside of the administrative state. As regulation increasingly becomes standards-based, the firms implementing the regulation become a key feature of the regulation, and must be a key feature of study to understand the effectiveness and persistence of regulatory arrangements.

Future research is, of course, needed to prove out the hypothesis that in-house regulators are “sticky.” Case studies of particular firms and industries will help expose which theories of persistence are more robust, and may highlight how firms have overcome the forces described by this Essay. But as we march through a period of deregulation, scholars should keep firms in their peripheral vision. Whether the parade of horribles some predict will result when deregulation manifests itself completely will be predicated, in part, on how firms respond. And if scholars and advocates can understand how firms adapt to deregulation, as well as regulation, they will be bettered positioned to craft regulation that is persistent regardless of administrative change.

  1. See Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs, Exec. Order No. 13,771, 82 Fed. Reg. 9,339 (Feb. 3, 2017); Core Principles for Regulating the United States Financial System, Exec. Order No. 13,772, 82 Fed. Reg. 9,965 (Feb. 8, 2017).
  2. Erica Werner & Alan Fram, GOP Dealt Stiff Blow in Senate’s Bid to Repeal ‘Obamacare,’ Associated Press (July 28, 2017), [].
  3. 5 U.S.C. §§ 551(5), 553 (2012).
  4. See, e.g., Motor Vehicles Mfrs. Ass’n of United States v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins., 463 U.S. 29 (1983); see also Jonathan S. Masur & Eric Posner, Cost-Benefit Analysis and the Judicial Role, 85 U. Chi. L. Rev. (forthcoming 2018) (discussing the “arbitrary and capricious” standard applied by courts); Daniel Hemel, Jonathan Masur & Eric Posner, How Antonin Scalia’s Ghost Could Block Donald Trump’s Wall, N.Y. Times (Jan. 25, 2017), [].
  5. See Jennifer Nou, Taming the Shallow State, 36 Yale J. on Reg.: Notice & Comment (Feb. 28, 2017), [].
  6. “With the passage of HIPAA, Congress set in motion the development of specific security and privacy guidelines for the healthcare domain through standards-based regulation.” Paul N. Otto, Reasonableness Meets Requirements: Regulating Security and Privacy in Software, 59 Duke L.J. 309, 324 n.74, 325, (2009) (“There are several examples of other recent laws and regulations that adopt a standards-based approach to regulating security and privacy in software.”).
  7. The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas, 1934–1952, at 128 (New Directions 1971). In fact, they may “[ r] age, rage against the dying of the light.” Id.
  8. See generally Nina A. Mendelson, Agency Burrowing: Entrenching Policies and Personnel Before a New President Arrives, 78 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 557 (2003).
  9. Kenneth A. Bamberger, Regulation as Delegation: Private Firms, Decisionmaking, and Accountability in the Administrative State, 56 Duke L.J. 377, 381 (2006) (“In general, however, administrative law’s sophisticated vision of organizational decisionmaking ends at the doors of the regulated firm.”).
  10. Similarly, business law scholars have, for the most part, presumed that deregulation causes firms to revert back to their pre-regulatory form. See Timothy F. Malloy, Regulating by Incentives: Myths, Models, and Micromarkets, 80 Tex. L. Rev. 531, 533 (2002) (“[ A]ssum[ ing] that the organization is a monolithic entity that essentially makes decisions as a natural individual would . . . [mean] the collective nature of the firm and its internal features are largely ignored.”).
  11. While recent scholarship has started to think about regulated entities, its focus remains on how administrative law or process changes incentives for firms, but does not address how those incentives work to actually change the structure and operations of the regulated entities. See, e.g., James W. Coleman, Policymaking by Proposal: How Agencies Are Transforming Industry Investment Long Before Rules Can Be Tested in Court, 24 Geo. Mason L. Rev 497 (2017) (documenting how, in regulated-rate industries such as power generation, regulators write excessively burdensome proposed rules that incentivize investment by increasing the certainty of regulation, even if the final rule is less burdensome than originally proposed); Aaron Nielson, Sticky Regulations, 85 U. Chi. L. Rev 85 (2018) (asserting that ossification creates incentives for firms to invest because it provides certainty that the rule will remain on the books for a prolonged period of time).
  12. See, e.g., John C. Coates IV, Cost-Benefit Analysis of Financial Regulation: Case Studies and Implications, 124 Yale L.J. 882, 882, 887 (2015) (arguing that cost-benefit analysis of financial regulation would result in a “guesstimation” and proposing that expert judgment is central to financial regulation); Masur & Posner, supra note 4 (celebrating judicial review of cost-benefit analysis and noting that such a review constitutes a “decision procedure” that agencies are then required to comply with).
  13. See Daniel Hemel, President Trump vs. the Bureaucratic State, Yale J. on Reg.: Notice & Comment (Feb. 18, 2016), [] (observing that President Trump “might not have the bureaucratic buy-in necessary to carry those [deregulatory] policies through”).
  14. See generally Bamberger, supra note 9 (documenting the change in regulatory form from top-down to bottom-up regulation that relies on private actors to accomplish administrative goals).
  15. Motor Vehicle Mfrs. Ass’n of United States, Inc. v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins., 463 U.S. 29, 43 (1983) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).
  16. Note, Judicial Review of Agency Change, 127 Harv. L. Rev. 2070, 2085 (2014).
  17. See generally Mendelson, supra note 8.
  18. Jennifer Nou, Bureaucratic Exit and Loyalty Under Trump, Yale J. on Reg.: Notice & Comment (Jan. 9, 2018), [].
  19. See, e.g., Zeeshan Aleem, Trump Wants to Gut the State Department by 25 Percent. You Read That Right., Vox Media (Feb. 12, 2018, 6:50 PM EST), [].
  20. State Farm, 463 U.S. at 42–43 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).
  21. Note, Rationalizing Hard Look Review After the Fact, 122 Harv. L. Rev. 1909, 1914 (2009).
  22. Core Principles for Regulating the United States Financial System, Exec. Order No. 13,772, 82 Fed. Reg. 9965 (Feb. 8, 2017).
  23. State Farm, 463 U.S. at 43.
  24. Note, Judicial Review of Agency Change, supra note 16, at 2085.
  25. 5 U.S.C. § 500 et seq. (2012).
  26. 5 U.S.C. § 551(5) (2012).
  27. See 5 U.S.C. § 553 (2012).
  28. Federal Rulemaking: Improvements Needed to Monitoring and Evaluation of Rules Development as well as to the Transparency of OMB Regulatory Reviews, Gov’t Accountability Off. 17 (Apr. 2009), [].
  29. For instance, OMB and OIRA review has been embraced and enhanced by presidents since President Ronald Reagan “creat[ed] a mechanism by which the Office of Management and Budget . . . would review all majority regulations of executive branch agencies.” Elena Kagan, Presidential Administration, 114 Harv. L. Rev. 2245, 2247 (2001).
  30. Thomas O. McGarity, Thoughts on “Deossifying” the Rulemaking Process, 41 Duke L.J. 1385, 1389 n.22 (1992).
  31. Throughout this Essay, I refer to the current administration as a pertinent example. The impediments to deregulation in the face of a pro-deregulation presidential administration are not limited to the current administration.
  32. Kagan, supra note 29, at 2248, 2250.
  33. See Mendelson, supra note 8, at 561–64.
  34. See Nielson, supra note 11.
  35. Mendelson, supra note 8, at 563 n.27.
  36. Id. at 563–64.
  37. Cf. id. at 610–16.
  38. See id. at 612–13.
  39. See, e.g., Dan Wood, Principals, Bureaucrats, and Responsiveness in Clean Air Enforcements, 82 Am. Pol. Sci. Rev. 213, 213 (1988) (finding “that the influence of elected institutions is limited when an agency has substantial bureaucratic resources and a zeal for their use”); see also Hemel, supra note 13 (briefly summarizing the literature and noting that Trump “might not have the bureaucratic buy-in necessary to carry those policies through”).
  40.  Wood, supra note 39, at 217–27.
  41. Id. at 229.
  42. Id.
  43. 332 U.S. 194 (1947).
  44.  470 U.S. 821 (1985).
  45. See 5 U.S.C. § 554(d) (2006).
  46. See Matthew C. Turk, Regulation by Settlement, 66 Kansas L. Rev 259 (2017).
  47. See Id.
  48. See infra Part I.B.
  49. See, e.g., Patrick Rucker, Exclusive: Trump Official Quietly Drops Payday Loan Case, Mulls Others – Sources, Reuters (Mar. 23, 2018, 3:04 AM), [].
  50. Bamberger, supra note 9, at 383.
  51. See id. at 385–89.
  52. Regulatory Planning and Review, Exec. Order No. 12,866, § 1(b)(8), 3 C.F.R. 638 (1994); see also Improving Regulation and Regulatory Review, Exec. Order 13,563, § 1(b)(4), 3 C.F.R. 13,563 (2012) (continuing the mandate).
  53.  Cary Coglianese & David Lazer, Management-Based Regulation: Prescribing Private Management to Achieve Public Goals, 37 Law & Soc’y Rev. 691, 694 (2003).
  54. Id.
  55. See NRC: Reactor Oversight Process (ROP), U.S. Nuclear Reg. Comm’n (Apr. 20, 2018), [].
  56. See NRC Inspection Manual, U.S. Nuclear Reg. Comm’n (Oct. 3, 2017), [].
  57. Galit A. Sarfaty, Regulating Through Numbers: A Case Study of Corporate Sustainability Reporting, 53 Va. J. Int’l L. 575, 583 (2013).
  58.  “Dissatisfaction . . . with traditional regulatory strategies has prompted interest in alternatives to traditional command and control regulation” including “a wide range of ‘rule at a distance’ methods in which various forms of standard-setting and self-regulation are used instead of more command-and-control based forms.” Scott Burris, Michael Kempa & Clifford Shearing, Changes in Governance: A Cross-Disciplinary Review of Current Scholarship, 41 Akron L. Rev. 1, 38 (2008). For instance, in the context of financial regulation scholars have noted that “[t]he administrative state, through regulatory law, uses internal corporate structures to effectuate public policy, which effectively transforms the large corporation into a quasi-governmental actor that functions as a kind of self-regulatory organization.” Mercer Bullard, Caremark’s Irrelevance, 10 Berkeley Bus. L. J. 15, 22 (2013). In food safety regulation, the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act “requires owners and operators of food facilities to evaluate the hazards that could affect food, and implement and monitor preventative controls.” Diana R. H. Winters, Not Sick Yet: Food-Safety-Impact Litigation and Barriers to Justiciability, 77 Brook. L. Rev. 905, 911–12 (2012).
  59. 463 U.S. 29 (1983).
  60. 42 U.S.C. § 18,001 (2012).
  61. Id. at §§ 3011–15.
  62. See, e.g., 21 C.F.R. § 1143.5(a) (2018) (requiring cigar manufacturers to place warning on their products “in at least 12-point font” that is “printed in conspicuous and legible Helvetica bold or Arial bold type”).
  63. Anthony Effinger, The Rise of the Compliance Guru—and Banker Ire, Bloomberg, (June 25, 2015, 3:00 AM PDT), [].
  64. Large Commercial Banks, Fed. Res. (Sept. 30, 2017), [[].
  65. Annual Report 2015, JPMorgan Chase & Co. 15 (2016), [] (“Since 2011, our total headcount directly associated with Controls has gone from 24,000 people to 43,000 people, and our total annual Controls spend has gone from $6 billion to approximately $9 billion annually over that same time period.”).
  66. Annual Report 2016, The Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. 57 (2017), [].
  67. Thomson Reuters Annual Cost of Compliance Survey Shows Regulatory Fatigue, Resource Challenges and Personal Liability to Increase Throughout 2015, Thomson Reuters (May 13, 2015), []
  68. Margot Patrick, HSBC Third-Quarter Earnings: Key Takeaways, Wall St. J. (Nov. 3, 2014, 6:05 AM ET), [].
  69. A Set of Blueprints for Success, EY & Institute of International Finance 13 (2016),$FILE/ey-a-working-set-of-blueprints-to-deliver-sustainable-returns.pdf [].
  70. See Form 10-K: Annual Report Pursuant to Section 13 or 15(d) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 for the Year Ended December 31, 2010, Morgan Stanley 97, [].
  71. See Form 10-K, Annual Report Pursuant to Section 13 or 15(d) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 for the Year Ended December 31, 2016, Morgan Stanley, 75–76, [].
  72. Form 10-K: Annual Report Pursuant to Section 13 or 15(d) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 for the Year Ended December 31, 2016, Citigroup, Inc. 65, [].
  73. See Form 10-K: Annual Report Pursuant to Section 13 or 15(d) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 for the Year Ended December 31, 2011, Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. 84, [].
  74. See Form 10-K: Annual Report Pursuant to Section 13 or 15(d) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 for the Year Ended December 31, 2016, Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. 84, [].
  75. See Timothy F. Malloy, Regulation, Compliance and the Firm, 76 Temp. L. Rev. 451, 453–55 (2003); Robert A. Prentice, The Inevitability of a Strong SEC, 91 Cornell L. Rev. 775, 780 (2006) (“In the deregulation worldview, investors, securities professionals, and ancillary actors such as auditors and attorneys are rational.”). See also supra note 10.
  76. See, e.g., Tom Ginsburg et al., Libertarian Paternalism, Path Dependence, and Temporary Law, 81 U. Chi. L. Rev. 291 (2014) (discussing the stickiness of a smoking moratorium in bars).
  77. See Nielson, supra note 12, at 133.
  78. For instance, Dodd-Frank alone costs banks an estimated $36 billion. Dodd-Frank Costs Reach $36 billion in Sixth Year, Bloomberg Brief (July 22, 2016), [].
  79.  Richard A. Posner, The Effects of Deregulation on Competition: The Experience of the United States, 23 Fordham Int’l L. J. S7, S17 (2000).
  80. Id.
  81. Michael C. Jensen & William H. Meckling, Theory of the Firm: Managerial Behavior, Agency Costs and Ownership Structure, 3 J. Fin. Econ. 305, 311 (1976).
  82. See id. at 334–37.
  83. See, e.g., Sungbin Cho, Specialization, Agency Cost and Firm Size, Econometric Soc’y 2004 Far Eastern Meetings 705 (2004).
  84. See supra Part I.A.
  85. Emily Flitter et al., Federal Reserve Shackles Wells Fargo After Fraud Scandal N.Y. Times (Feb. 2, 2018), [].
  86. See Fletcher Cyclopedia of the Law of Private Corporations, § 1037 (2017).
  87. See generally Thomas W. Malone, Decentralization is the New Center of Command (Harvard 2010).
  88. See generally David S. Scharfstein & Jeremy C. Stein, The Dark Side of Internal Capital Markets: Divisional Rent-Seeking and Inefficient Investment, 6 J. Fin. 2537 (2000).
  89. Id.
  90. Id. at 2551.
  91. Id.
  92. Andrei Shleifer & Robert W. Vishny, Management Entrenchment: The Case of Manager Specific Investments, 25 J. Fin. Econ. 123, 123 (1989).
  93. Id. at 124.
  94. Id. at 126.
  95. But see infra Part II.A.3 (The value may come from transferability of knowledge that occurs.).
  96. Coglianese & Lazer, supra note 53, at 695.
  97. See generally Robert M. Grant, Toward a Knowledge-Based Theory of the Firm, 17 Strategic Mgmt. J. 109 (1996).
  98. Id.
  99. See generally Michael C. Jensen & William H. Meckling, Specific and General Knowledge and Organizational Structure, 8 J. Applied Corp. Fin. 251 (1995).
  100. Grant, supra note 97, at 114 (emphasis added).
  101. See id. at 118 (Once firms are viewed as institutions for integrating knowledge, a major part of which is tacit and can be exercised only by those who possess it, then hierarchical coordination fails . . . . Only one of the integration mechanism . . . is compatible with hierarchy: integration through rules and directives.”).
  102. Id.
  103. See generally David B. Clarke et al., No Alternative? The Regulation and Professionalization of Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the United Kingdom, 10 Health & Place 329 (2004) (discussing the increased professionalization of alternative medicine after Parliamentary Inquiry).
  104.  Kenneth A. Bamberger, Privacy on the Books and on the Ground, 63 Stan. L. Rev. 247, 277 (2010) (noting the importance of “the increasingly professionalized privacy-officer community”).
  105. See Margali S. Larson, The Rise of Professionalism: A Sociological Analysis 190–91 (Transaction Publishers 1977).
  106. See William A. Birdthistle & M. Todd Henderson, Becoming a Fifth Branch, 99 Cornell L. Rev. 1, 46 (2013) (noting that financial compliance staffs may build a “culture of compliance” that is difficult for the rest of the firm to overcome).
  107.  Sapna Maheshwari, Statue of Girl Confronts Bull, Captivating Manhattanites and Social Media, N.Y. Times (Mar. 8, 2017), [].
  108. See George Tepe, Boards Should Use Diversity as a Defense Against Activists, CLS Blue Sky Blog (Sept. 21, 2017), [].
  109. See Maheshwari, supra note 107.
  110. See Final Rule: Proxy Voting by Investment Advisors, 17 C.F.R. § 275.206(4)-6, § 275.204-2 (2012), [].
  111. See Dorothy S. Lund, The Case Against Passive Shareholder Voting, 43 J. Corp. L. 493, 515-20 (2018).
  112.  See Tepe, supra note 108.
  113. See Miriam A. Cherry & Judd F. Sneirson, Chevron, Greenwashing, and the Myth of “Green Oil Companies,” 3 Wash & Lee Energy, Climate & Env’t 133 (2012).
  114. See Leora Klapper et al., Entry Regulation as a Barrier to Entrepreneurship, 82 J. Fin. Econ. 591 (2006).
  115. See Birdthistle and Henderson, supra note 106, at 44.
  116.  Sam Schechner & Nick Kostov, Google and Facebook Likely to Benefit From Europe’s Privacy Crackdown, Wall St. J. (April 23, 2018, 10:18 PM ET), [].
  117. See Jeffrey A. Singer, Obamacare’s Catch 22, U.S. News (Aug. 11, 2016, 3:15 PM), [].
  118.  In re Caremark Int’l Inc. Derivative Litig., 698 A.2d 959, 970 (Del. Ch. 1996).
  119. See Kenneth A. Bamberger & Deirdre K. Mulligan, New Governance, Chief Privacy Officers, and the Corporate Management of Information Privacy in the United States: An Initial Inquiry, 33 L. & Pol’y. 477 (2011).
  120. Stone v. Ritter, 911 A.2d 362, 370 (Del. 2006).
  121. See In re Citigroup Inc. Shareholder Derivative Litig., 964 A.2d 106, 123–24 (Del. Ch. 2009).
  122. Id. at 124 (“When one looks past the lofty allegations of duties of oversight and red flags used to dress up these claims, what is left appears to be plaintiff shareholders attempting to hold the director defendants personally liable for making (or allowing to be made) business decisions that, in hindsight, turned out poorly for the Company.”).
  123.  Brian J. McCarthy and Janisha Sabnani, Risk Governance Will Be the Talk in Corporate Boardrooms in 2010, S.F. Daily J. (Dec. 28, 2009).
  124. See Bamberger & Mulligan, supra note 119.
  125. See generally Douglas W. Diamond & Robert E. Verrecchia, Disclosure, Liquidity, and the Cost of Capital, 46 J. Fin. 1325 (1991) (suggesting that decreasing the information asymmetry between investors and the firm can reduce the firm’s cost of capital).
  126. Prentice, supra note 75, at 780–81 (discussing how rational issuers will self-regulate disclosures because of reputational constraints).
  127. See, e.g., Analysts Grill Goldman CFO Over Lack of Leverage Ratio Detail, Reuters (July, 16, 2013, 8:15 AM), [].
  128. See Alexandra Niessen-Runzi, Jerry Parwarda & Stefan Rueniz, Information Effects of the Basel Bank Capital and Risk Pillar 3 Disclosures on Equity Analyst Research—An Exploratory Examination, CIFR Working Paper Series (Aug. 2015), [].
  129. See Wood, supra note 39, at 217–27.
  130. See Donald C. Langevoort, Monitoring: The Behavioral Economics of Corporate Compliance With Law, 2002 Colum. Bus. L. Rev. 71, 83–90 (noting the difficulties managers have in monitoring compliance professionals).
  131. See id.
  132. See Jonathan Masur, Judicial Deference and the Credibility of Agency Commitments, 60 Vand. L. Rev. 1021, 1041–42 (2007).
  133. See Nielson, supra note 11.
  134. See David Zaring, Best Practices, 81 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 294, 304–05 (2006) (noting that scholars suggest agencies “look to the private sector for assistance with rule generation”).

The Modigliani-Miller Theorem at 60: The Long-Overlooked Legal Applications of Finance’s Foundational Theorem

*Theodore Warner Professor, University of Pennsylvania Law School; Professor of Real Estate, The Wharton School; Co-director, Center for Tax Law and Policy, University of Pennsylvania. Thanks to Alvin Dong for assistance with the research, to my colleagues for their comments and suggestions, and to my students for their willingness to grapple with many of these issues. Copyright 2018 by Michael S. Knoll. All rights reserved.

2018 marks the sixtieth anniversary of the publication of Franco Modigliani and Merton Miller’s The Cost of Capital, Corporation Finance, and the Theory of Investment, which purports to demonstrate that a firm’s value is independent of its capital structure. Widely hailed as the foundation of modern finance, their article is little known by lawyers and legal academics even though it led to many major economic advances, such as agency costs and asymmetric information, recognized and used throughout the law today. The legal profession’s lack of familiarity with these Nobel Prize-winning authors and their work is not merely an oversight; it is a missed opportunity. When inverted, the Modigliani-Miller theorem describes the mechanisms through which capital structure can affect value. This “reverse” Modigliani-Miller theorem provides a powerful framework that can be extremely useful to legal academics, practicing attorneys, and judges.


In June 1958, two young economists, Franco Modigliani and Merton Miller, published an article, The Cost of Capital, Corporation Finance, and The Theory of Investment in the American Economic Review.1 That article, which directly challenged then-conventional financial orthodoxy, is today widely acknowledged as the foundation of the modern academic discipline of finance.2 Yet, the article, which is still read by nearly all economics and finance graduate students, is little known among lawyers and legal academics, many of whom have never heard of or have only a passing acquaintance with the authors’ names and their work. Nonetheless, MM (as the pair of authors, their joint articles, and the theorems they contain are all colloquially referred to by economists)3
has long been implicitly used throughout the legal profession, although the debt has only been occasionally acknowledged and their work is rarely directly and knowingly applied by legal academics.4 That oversight is unfortunate because the first MM theorem, when reversed, provides a powerful framework with broad applications throughout the law. As the sixtieth anniversary of the publication of MM’s first article approaches, it is time for the legal profession to add the reverse MM theorem to the lawyer’s toolkit,5 alongside other well-known economic ideas, such as the Coase theorem.6

The rest of this Essay is organized as follows. After describing MM and its development, I introduce the reverse MM theorem—the idea that if capital structure matters it must work through one of the original MM theorem’s assumptions. The three following sections then describe how the reverse MM theorem can be used by legal academics, practicing lawyers, and judges in their work. In each section, I provide one or more examples to illustrate how the reverse MM theorem can serve as a framework to address a broad range of recurring, but challenging legal issues. I then speculate as to why the reverse MM theorem is not already widely known and used by lawyers before offering a conclusion.

I. History

Modern business school finance departments are stocked with Ph.D.s whose scholarship tends to focus on abstract questions with real-world applications. Sixty years ago, the situation was different.7 Finance departments were much smaller and something of a backwater. The field lacked mathematical precision and conceptual rigor, relying heavily on accounting conventions, rules of thumb, and anecdotes.8 The prevailing view at the time was that the impact of leverage on the value of a firm was “complex and convoluted.”9 Debt was generally considered preferable to equity because it was cheaper (the stated return on debt was less than the implied return on equity10 and because interest could be deducted, whereas dividends could not; however, there was thought to be some unspecified upper limit on value-increasing debt because the risk of corporate bankruptcy and the interest rate increased with leverage. However, none of these intuitions had been formalized.11

With their 1958 article, MM directly challenged the prevailing thinking that debt was cheaper than equity and that each firm had an optimal capital structure. They argued that under certain idealized assumptions the amount of debt had no impact on firm value.12 Expressed more confrontationally, MM averred that their finance colleagues were wasting their time and their clients’ money trying to ascertain what a firm’s optimal capital structure was because one capital structure was as good as any other.13 That idea, which is also MM’s principal substantive result and is today known as the capital structure irrelevancy proposition, or more succinctly, as MMI,14 has been called “the bombshell assertion.”15 As with many bold ideas, the underlying intuition is extremely simple. In an interview after Modigliani won the Nobel Prize in Economics, Miller (who subsequently won the prize, too) analogized their irrelevancy proposition to slicing a pizza. A pizza can be cut into as many slices as desired but doing so does not change the pizza’s size.16
Similarly, MM argued that the firm’s capital structure divides the firm’s cash flows, but because it does not change those cash flows, it does not affect the overall value of the firm, which is just the present value of all of the firm’s cash flows.

Although MM’s main result is most intuitively expressed by analogy, they presented their argument formally. MM began their formal argument with a series of idealized assumptions. Although there are different ways to state the MM assumptions, from a lawyer’s perspective, the most intuitive and helpful listing of the MM assumptions is probably as follows:

Efficient capital markets – All investors have access to the same information, which they process in the same way. As a result, all investors agree on the market value of all cash flow streams.

Frictionless markets – There are no transaction costs. Contracts can be costlessly written to cover all contingencies and can be costlessly enforced.

No taxes (or other regulations) – There are no taxes at the firm or the individual investor level. There are also no government regulations, or at least no regulations that relate to or are affected by capital structure.

Only cash flows matter – Investors care only about the cash flow generated by an investment. Alternatively, no investments generate nonpecuniary benefits, such as shelter (owner-occupied housing) or aesthetic appreciation (art).

Using only the above four assumptions, MM showed that a firm could not change its value by adjusting its leverage. MM proved their central claim by assuming the contrary result (that the firm could change its value by adjusting its leverage) and then showing that the result could not persist in a market with rational investors.

Because MM’s capital structure irrelevancy theorem was so out-of-step with conventional thinking and practice, it was initially met with deep skepticism.17 Many thought the theorem was simply wrong: that the conclusion did not follow from the assumptions. However, after some back-and-forth and various technical corrections, economists concluded that the argument was correct as a matter of theoretical economics. Given the initial assumptions (efficient and frictionless markets, no taxes, and only cash flows matter) the result (a firm’s value was independent of its capital structure) held.18 Next, skeptics questioned whether the assumptions were so inaccurate as to render the theorem true as a matter of internal logic, but not very useful. Most practicing finance professionals reached that conclusion and they largely ignored MM’s work. Academic economists, however, took a different approach. For a time, many accepted the theorem as fairly accurate and turned their attention to other issues, but they did not ignore MM.19 Instead, they built modern finance upon it.20

The economists, whether or not they accepted the MM capital structure irrelevancy result, mined MM’s formal argument. By appealing directly to the economic principle of one price—the notion that two perfect substitutes will sell for the same price—the MM proof introduced the idea of arbitrage into financial economics.21 Since its introduction by MM, financial economists have been employing arbitrage arguments in order to develop new insights.22 Consider two major examples from the 1960’s and 1970’s. The first example is the capital asset pricing model (CAPM), which holds that investments are priced according to their market risk (typically measured by beta – β), which cannot be diversified away, not their unique risk, which can be eliminated through diversification.23 The second example is the Black-Scholes option pricing model, which recognizes that a call option is equivalent to holding a share of the underlying stock and borrowing against that share.24Today, arbitrage is the cornerstone of financial economics. Indeed, the MM proof has been called the “watershed between old and new finance.”25

Economists, however, were not finished with capital structure. After a roughly twenty-year hiatus, economists began to return to studying capital structure.26 And when they did, they recognized that the MM capital structure irrelevancy proposition provided the key to understanding capital structure.

By that time, financial economists had recognized that the MM irrelevancy proposition had wide application. Given the original MM assumptions, it follows that a broad array of corporate actions, not just leverage, have no impact on firm value. Indeed, the MM assumptions imply that the value of a firm is determined solely by the firm’s investments or assets (the left side of the balance sheet), not how those investments are financed (the right side of the balance sheet). Thus, for example, the MM assumptions also imply that hedging activities, leasing versus owning, the form of legal organization, the compensation structure, the state of incorporation and the legal rules that follow, and so much more have no impact on firm value either. That suggests a tension, if not an outright conflict, between the MM capital structure irrelevancy theorem and the goal of understanding capital structure.

The key to reconciling this tension was to reverse or invert the MM irrelevancy theorem. As Miller wrote in 1988, as part of a symposium on the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of the first MM article, MM wrote their original article in order to dispel much thinking about how capital structure can affect firm value.27 However, by showing which aspects of capital structure do not affect value, MM also showed how capital structure can affect value.28 Thus, the power of MM is through the MM assumptions, which describe how capital structure can impact firm value This idea is called the reverse MM theorem, and it holds that capital structure can affect the overall value of the firm only by releasing or withholding information, by decreasing or increasing transactions costs, by decreasing or increasing taxes (or the costs of other regulations), or through the allocation of assets with consumption elements. According to MM, the above is an exhaustive list of how capital structure decisions can affect firm value.

The reverse MM theorem, thus, takes the original MM theorem and turns it on its head. It replaces the idea that under certain assumptions capital structure does not affect the value of the firm with the idea that capital structure affects firm value only to the extent that it operates through the MM assumptions.29

Starting in the 1970s, economists began to mine the MM assumptions for insights into how capital structure affects the total value of the firm. Consider the following two examples from that decade. Michael Jensen and William Meckling argued that the conflicting interests of the managers and the owners of a business generate agency costs, which the owners seek to reduce by monitoring and writing contracts that bond their employees with contingent payments.30 Thus, Jensen and Meckling developed a theory of capital structure that exploits the notion that the second MM assumption, frictionless markets, is false.

Around the same time, Stephen Ross recognized that managers are usually better informed about a firm’s prospects than are its shareholders. Ross argued that mangers could signal to shareholders that a firm’s prospects have improved by raising the firm’s debt-to-equity ratio or declined by reducing that ratio. Ross argued that investors can easily read these signals, which are credible because they are costly for managers to send.31 Ross’s article, which was the first application of signaling theory to finance, assumes that the first MM assumption, informationally perfect markets, is wrong.

The above are only two examples—albeit two very important and highly influential examples—of how capital structure can impact value. Over the last forty years, economists have developed many ideas in addition to the two above that illustrate how capital structure can affect value in situations where the original MM assumptions do not hold (Miller himself developed many of the ideas about taxes and value.32). And some of these ideas, including agency costs and signaling, have made their way into the lawyer’s toolkit. However, the work of MM, which gave birth to these ideas, and which in the form of the reverse MM theorem serves as a framework that organizes these and many other ideas, has not been incorporated. That is unfortunate because the reverse MM theorem is a powerful analytical tool with a wide range of legal applications.

II. Ivy Halls: Use by Legal Academics and Policy Makers

Scholars can use the reverse MM theorem for both positive and prescriptive analyses. Positively, academics can use the theorem to understand why a particular structure is used and how it has developed and changed over time. Implicit in the exercise is the assumption that the observed structure is the structure that maximizes value. The theorem is then being used to explain why the observed practice is optimal. Scholars can also use the reverse MM theorem prescriptively to criticize existing structures and to develop recommendations for improved structures.

A. Positive Analysis

Use of the reverse MM theorem for positive analysis is sometimes explicit in finance scholarship,33 but it is rarely explicit in legal scholarship.34
Nonetheless, sophisticated legal academics frequently make arguments in the vein of the reverse MM theorem. Such arguments often take the form that some capital structure is optimal because it solves a particular informational, incentive, or tax problem, which is to say it solves a problem relating to a failure of one of the MM assumptions. Contained within that argument is usually a nod to the notion that the structure does not create or amplify other problems—that it does not increase costs relating to a failure to meet the other assumptions.

The practice of aircraft leasing, for example, can be readily understood through the reverse MM theorem. Airlines have three alternatives to fund new aircraft: equity, debt, or capital (long-term) leases.35 Among the three alternatives, airlines rarely purchase new aircraft by issuing equity or using retained earnings. That is largely because equity financing is subject to two levels of taxation—first at the corporate level and then at the investor level—whereas borrowing and lease-financing incur only one level of taxation.36 Thus, airlines rarely finance aircraft through equity because the tax cost, which relates to the third MM assumption, is prohibitive.

If the airline were to borrow to purchase the aircraft, the airline could depreciate the aircraft because the owner of tangible personal property is entitled to the depreciation deductions on that property. Depreciation reduces income, and thus provides the owner of the depreciable property with a tax benefit. Moreover, aircraft are eligible for accelerated depreciation.37 These favorable depreciation rules make commercial aircraft a tax-advantaged asset. Such assets are worth most to high-bracket taxpayers confident that they will have the income to take full advantage of the deductions.38 Airlines, however, are not such taxpayers. The airline industry is capital-intensive (aircraft are expensive), volatile, and low-profit. Accordingly, if the airlines took all of the depreciation deductions from the aircraft they operated, they would frequently realize little or no value from doing so. Thus, the aircraft lease and its close cousin, the leveraged aircraft lease, were created in order to transfer the depreciation deductions from the airlines to other taxpayers that value them more.

In an aircraft lease, a third party takes title and leases the aircraft to the airline. The lessor as the aircraft’s owner uses the depreciation deductions to offset other income. The airline benefits through a lower operating cost because the lessor accepts a reduced lease rate. In effect, the airline transfers the depreciation tax benefits to the lessor in exchange for a lower lease rate. In a simple lease, the lessor would purchase the aircraft for cash, tying up capital. Because it is the lessor’s tax attributes—and only those tax attributes—that make it the preferred owner, most aircraft leases are leveraged leases. In a leveraged lease, a lender provides most of the capital required to purchase the aircraft.

For a brief period during the early 1980’s, there was a practice called safe harbor leasing under which any transaction called a lease would be respected as such, even if it closely resembled a sale.39 In that environment, lessors would transfer the full risk of ownership to lessees. Because lessors had no residual risk from the aircraft (which was insured during the lease), they passed nearly all of the tax benefits to lessees through lower lease rates. Later in the 1980’s, the safe harbor leasing provisions were eliminated.40 The Internal Revenue Service (Service) would then challenge parties’ characterization of transactions as leases if the purported lessors had too little residual risk (under the tax law, ownership is not determined by who holds title, but rather by who has the benefits and burdens of ownership.). If the Service’s challenge succeeded, it would treat the nominal lessee as owner (and hence the lessee, not the lessor, would be entitled to the depreciation deductions). Accordingly, aircraft leasing changed. Leasing remained, but lessors took on more residual risk, which created agency problems because lessees controlled the aircraft during the lease. The lease documentation became longer, and the parties and their lawyers carefully negotiated and executed the leases so as to ensure that the lessors retained the requisite amount of risk and that the resulting agency costs were controlled. Lease payments also increased in order to compensate lessors for their increased risk and their increased contracting and monitoring costs.41 Thus, the elimination of safe harbor leasing led to changes in the optimal capital structure because it changed the trade-offs across the four MM assumptions.

Although aircraft leasing can be understood without reference to the reverse MM theorem, the theorem focuses on the relevant issues—taxes and incentives—the optimal balance among which changed as the legal regime changed. Used in this way, the reverse MM theorem operates as a template to understand alternative transactional structures and their development over time.

B. Prescriptive Analysis

The reverse MM theorem can also be used to criticize inefficient capital structures and to suggest how those structures might be improved. The reverse MM theorem can be used prescriptively because it asks the right question from an economic efficiency perspective—what structure maximizes the total value of the firm—and provides a roadmap to answer that question. In corporate law, the central issue of debate has long been the allocation of control rights among corporate managers, directors, and shareholders. Because directors are typically seen as passive, the corporate governance debate is usually binary: one side argues that shareholders should have greater control rights and, concomitantly, that managers should have less. The other side makes the opposite argument: Managers should have greater control rights and shareholders should have less. The arguments are often anecdotal, but they are increasingly econometric. These competing views of the proper allocation of power between managers and shareholders play out across such issues as staggered boards, waiting periods, and takeover defenses.

The first view, the shareholder primacy position, is often described as the agency model, and it emphasizes the agency costs from having managers make decisions on behalf of shareholders. As such, the agency model is a straightforward example of a violation of the second MM assumption of frictionless markets. The latter view, the management primacy position, is sometimes described as the commitment view. Under that view, activist investors deter firms from making long-term, positive-net-present-value investments that cannot be valued by the market. Thus, the commitment view is an example of a violation of the first MM assumption of informationally perfect markets. The debate usually takes the form of which approach is better—favoring managers or shareholders—which is to say whether the agency costs from manager control are greater than the costs resulting from imperfect information with shareholder control.

The reverse MM theorem suggests a different approach, one emphasizing the need for a governance structure that maximizes the total value of the firm. A third alternative that mediates between the above two polar positions is to appoint stronger, more independent directors who can identify and value investments that cannot be publicly disclosed (without losing value). Such directors would allow the firm to capture the benefits from making long-term investments not accurately valued by the market without the costs of managerial entrenchment. Hiring and empowering such directors has the potential to increase firm value above that from either polar position because it takes seriously the concerns expressed by both sides and looks to alleviate each side’s concerns without exacerbating the other side’s concerns. This suggestion, in essence, is Ira Millstein’s proposal for activist directors who partner with management, but who also take responsibility for the corporation’s strategy.42 As Millstein writes, he favors

a board-centric approach to corporate governance by placing more activist directors in the boardroom – people who will ask the tough questions, challenge management practices, and resist those who put their own agendas ahead of those of the corporation and investors like you. Choosing directors will require new diligence and care.43

Millstein developed his proposal for more activist directors without appeal to the reverse MM theorem, but by drawing upon his lengthy and highly successful legal career. For those who lack the in-depth knowledge and experience that comes from decades of working at the pinnacle of the legal profession, the reverse MM theorem provides a framework that should make it easier to develop and defend efficient new forms of corporate governance and capital structure, because the theorem focuses inquiry on the relevant issues and provides a lens through which those issues can be examined and weighed.

Moreover, the observation or recommendation that directors should have more power is only the beginning of the analysis. A more thorough and detailed response would describe the additional duties directors take on, the powers they should have, and the limitations there should be on their powers. In addition, a more thorough analysis would describe how directors should be compensated and how much effort they should apply to each firm. Although I do not know the value-maximizing answers to those questions, the path to finding them runs through the reverse MM theorem, because the theorem directs those using it to look for the structure that strikes the value-maximizing balance across the MM assumptions.

C. Summary

The reverse MM theorem categorizes and partitions the various ways that capital structure, which includes governance, can affect the total value of the firm. The reverse MM theorem takes a large collection of seemingly unrelated concepts and organizes them into categories of closely-related ideas. Once so organized, these concepts can be used and applied more easily and systematically to understand and evaluate existing financial practices and in the search for efficiency enhancing innovations. This organizational framework is of particular use to scholars because it leads them to examine the structure that maximizes value across the MM assumptions, which MM have shown is the value-maximizing structure (because everything outside of its assumptions has no effect on value). The reverse MM framework can be used both to understand capital structures and how they change over time, as with aircraft leasing, and to criticize current practice and develop new ideas, as with governance. The above examples only scratch the surface where academics can use the reverse MM theorem to understand capital structure.44

III. Wall Street: Use by Practitioners

Lawyers who have taken a class in corporate finance would have seen the MM theorem, and if they remember it, they probably consider it irrelevant to their work. That is unfortunate because in its reverse form, the theorem can be very useful to transactional lawyers (as I show in this section) and litigators (as I show in the next section).

A. Training Lawyers

For nearly a century, transactional lawyers have been trained through the Cravath method, named for Paul Cravath, of the New York law firm Cravath, Swaine and Moore. Under the Cravath method, a junior associate would start by working on a small piece of a transaction under the supervision of a more senior associate. As the lawyer gained experience, he (and more recently, she) would move up the pyramid, taking responsibility for successively larger portions of the transaction and seeing closely at each stage how a more senior lawyer handled the next stage. The rationale for such a method of training was that good transactional lawyering was more art than science, that almost everything there was to learn (beyond the directly applicable law) had to be learned through experience, by working with other lawyers, and that this craft could not be taught in the traditional fashion of most academic subjects.45

Slightly more than thirty years ago, Ronald Gilson suggested that important aspects of the professional education of transactional lawyers did not have to be learned through an apprenticeship, but instead could be taught in the classroom.46 Gilson asked the following questions: Why do smart, sophisticated business people hire business lawyers, and what is it that business lawyers do that makes them valuable to clients? Gilson described transactional lawyers as business or transactional engineers.47

Moreover, those lawyers face the same types of fundamentally economic problems–dealing with incentives and imperfect information—over and over again. Although those problems arise in different situations and present themselves in different forms, ultimately there are only a small number of basic economic concepts that underlie the core work of transactional lawyers. Gilson further believed that lawyers would benefit from studying these basic economic concepts. In Gilson’s view, such an economically trained lawyer would be better able to recognize one of these issues and would have a deeper understanding.48 Also, by identifying and understanding the issue, such a lawyer could more quickly and easily draw upon prior transactions to find an appropriate solution, modify that solution to fit the situation, and even develop new solutions when the situation demands it. Gilson then put that thought into practice by teaming with two Columbia colleagues, Victor Goldberg and Daniel Raff, and offering the first Deals course at the Columbia law and business schools.

Deals courses typically begin by introducing the students to the relevant economic concepts through the use of highly stylized examples. The course then progresses through increasingly less stylized case studies that illustrate how these issues present themselves in different legal contexts as well as some standard techniques that address those challenges. The course typically concludes with presentations by professionals of actual transactions, which are then analyzed by the students. The students’ task is to explain why the transaction was structured as it was, using the concepts covered in class. The professionals’ presentations (and the students’ analyses) are intended to reinforce the theoretical concepts covered in class by challenging the students to find and identify those issues in actual transactions, underscoring the importance and ubiquity of such issues in practice, and giving the students an opportunity to see how those issues were addressed by professionals. The practitioners’ presentations, however, are less successful pedagogically when the structure is driven by one or more concepts not specifically covered in class. In that case, there is an uncomfortable disconnect between the classroom pedagogy and the final presentations. Accordingly, Raff and I, after Raff left Columbia for Penn and recruited me to teach Deals with him, began using the reverse MM theorem to organize the ideas presented in the course. Because the MM assumptions span the ways transactional structures affect the value of a firm (and partition those ways into silos), the reverse MM theorem ensures that the full range of ways in which structure can affect value are at least introduced (and covered at a high level of generality) even though not all variations can be explored at length. Thus, even if a structure is largely driven by a particular issue not explicitly covered in class, the driver can be placed in one of the four MM silos and its similarities to other ideas can be drawn upon to understand the issue and its resolution.49

Raff and I have found that there are additional pedagogical advantages from using the reverse MM theorem to organize a Deals course. Lawyers (and other transaction professionals) structure and execute transactions. Each step of the way there are choices to be made that involve trade-offs within and across the MM assumptions. The reverse MM theorem makes those trade-offs explicit. Because it provides a framework that organizes the full range of ways in which structure can affect value, the reverse MM theorem lies at the heart of transactional lawyering. A lawyer who knows the reverse MM theorem and is familiar with the main ideas in each silo is better able to understand the issues driving a transaction. In addition, the same lawyer can more quickly acquire knowledge because she is building out a framework (using the reverse MM theorem as a skeleton), and she is better able to retain knowledge because she can store it systematically, not just as a series of one-off examples. Such a lawyer can also more readily recall and employ her knowledge when a new situation arises because once she has identified and categorized the problem she can focus her search for a solution among solutions to structurally similar problems across various practice areas, rather than gravitating towards what has been done before in the same practice area.50

The teaching of the reverse MM theorem is, thus, an example of the kind of reform for which the 2007 Carnegie Report on Legal Education called. The Carnegie Report criticized law schools for relying too heavily on post-graduation apprenticeships in order to train lawyers and recommended that law school faculty seek to identify powerful analytical frameworks that lawyers can use to accelerate their transition from law students to successful practitioners.51 The reverse MM theorem is precisely such a framework because it captures much of what transactional lawyers do in practice, albeit at a high level of generality.52

B. Practice

The applicability of the reverse MM theorem can be illustrated through some common examples from mergers and acquisitions. There are what might seem to be (especially to a new associate) a bewildering array of methods whereby one corporation (Purchaser) can acquire another corporation (Target). The basic possibilities include:53 Purchaser acquires Target’s assets; Purchaser acquires Target’s stock; Target merges into Purchaser (forward direct merger); Purchaser merges into Target (reverse direct merger); Target merges into Purchaser’s subsidiary (forward triangular merger); or Purchaser’s subsidiary merges into Target (reverse triangular merger). The main result of all of these transactions is the same – Purchaser ends up owning Target’s assets – but there can be very different legal and economic consequences depending upon the method chosen. The reverse MM theorem can help attorneys (especially beginning attorneys) by giving them a better and deeper understanding of the issues that drive the choice of merger-and-acquisition structure, which come down to the MM assumptions. By recognizing the trade-offs across incentives, informational asymmetries and taxes that arise with the different structuring choices, the reverse MM theorem can also help lawyers to choose an acquisition method. Indeed, as one reads sophisticated treatments by practitioners of the various options and their advantages and disadvantages, their reasons regularly relate back to and can be catalogued under the MM assumptions.54 A young lawyer who has internalized the reverse MM theorem should find it easier to acquire, store, retrieve and apply the relevant skills and knowledge required to progress.

As another example where the reverse MM theorem can be useful, consider an example Gilson emphasized in his original article, the negotiation of representations and warranties.55 Representations and warranties are statements of fact to which a party to a contract is attesting. Many of Target’s typical representations and warranties concern Target’s assets and liabilities. For example, Target usually represents to Purchaser that Target owns or has the rights to the assets that it uses in its business and shows on its financial statements. Also, Target commonly represents to Purchaser that Target does not have liabilities beyond those it has disclosed. James Freund, a retired Skadden Arps mergers and acquisition partner and the author of a classic book on mergers and acquisitions, describes the process of negotiating representations and warranties as competitive, with each attorney trying to capture more value for her client.56 In contrast, Gilson describes the process as cooperative (or argues that it should be cooperative) because the less well-informed party (typically, Purchaser with the above representations and warranties) wants assurances that it is receiving what it is paying for and sellers have the incentive to provide this information in order to encourage buyers to pay more.57 Thus, Gilson’s view of representations and warranties fits nicely within the reverse MM theorem framework. The representations and warranties respond to a violation of the first MM assumption, perfect information, by providing Purchaser with useful information about Target and assurances as to the accuracy of that information.

What about Freund’s competitive view of negotiating representations and warranties? Recall that the reverse MM theorem holds that capital structure can affect the value of the firm only through the MM assumptions, and hence the capital structure that maximizes the overall value of the firm minimizes the total cost from falling short of the assumptions. However, the lawyers negotiating a merger or acquisition (and their clients) are not only interested in maximizing the value of the deal; each side also has an interest in receiving as much value as it can. Familiarity with the reverse MM theorem can help to explain the disagreement between Freund and Gilson. The reverse MM theorem is a statement about value creation, and the total value of a transaction can be increased by providing information and assurance. The reverse MM theorem says nothing about how that value is distributed. My conjecture is that among experienced mergers and acquisitions lawyers, such as Freund, little time and energy is spent negotiating the representations and warranties that cover what the parties understand each needs. That, however, leaves more time and energy to spend fighting over the division of (expected) surplus that characterizes the rest of the negotiation.58

Thus, a scholar reading the final document could conclude it is mostly cooperative, but the lawyer who negotiated it would say more of the time was spent in competitive negotiations. For the new associate, however, the challenge is often figuring out what is going on in the negotiations. Understanding both the value creation and value distribution exercises taking place and the role the reverse MM theorem plays with the former as well as the conflict that often arises between value creation and value distribution can help the young associate to become a more effective advocate and negotiator.

C. Summary

For most practicing transactional lawyers, the suggestion that much of their work is an application of the reverse MM theorem is likely to be met with either a shrug or resistance. Immersed in the details of a transaction while focused on the competitive aspects of the negotiations, it is easy to lose sight of the big picture and the scaffolding on which it stands. The reverse MM theorem is that scaffolding, and the lawyer who has internalized that theorem has a powerful framework that can be used to help to identify problems and tailor solutions for her client even in complex and novel situations. Also, because of its breadth, compactness and utility, the reverse MM theorem is a powerful pedagogical tool that can accelerate young lawyers’ learning.

IV. The Court Room: Use by Judges and Litigants

Finally, one area where, to the best of my knowledge, the reverse MM theorem has yet to be explicitly applied is in litigation. In this section, I describe how the reverse MM theorem can assist judges in drafting common law rules and litigators in seeking to persuade them.

Consider, for example, the calculation of prejudgment interest. Prejudgment interest is interest that the defendant pays to the plaintiff on a judgment. Prejudgment interest accrues from the date of injury until the date of judgment.59 Federal law does not provide for a particular fixed or floating prejudgment interest rate, nor does it explicitly call for a specific method of calculation. Instead, the federal courts have sought to award prejudgment interest at a rate that will compensate the successful plaintiff for delay. According to the economics-based coerced loan theory, a successful plaintiff should receive prejudgment interest at the defendant’s unsecured borrowing rate. The rationale is that the defendant, through its wrongful action, has forced the plaintiff to make a loan to the defendant, which debt would be treated as an unsecured debt in the event of defendant’s bankruptcy. Accordingly, in order to compensate the successful plaintiff for the risk of not being able to collect its judgment, the defendant should pay the plaintiff interest at the defendant’s unsecured borrowing rate taking the duration of the loan into account.60

However, recognizing that the court should award the plaintiff prejudgment interest at defendant’s cost of unsecured borrowing from the date of injury to the date of judgment does not provide the court with all of the direction it needs to determine a unique and unambiguous interest rate. In principle, the defendant could have borrowed unsecured from plaintiff at a fixed interest rate or at an array of floating interest rates. The coerced loan theory cannot resolve this matter as there can be multiple market-based interest rates that can compensate the plaintiff. In such circumstances, the reverse MM theorem suggests that the court should adopt a rule that will minimize the combined cost to the parties from failures of the MM assumptions. Litigants have some control over the pace of litigation. Accordingly, because it is easier to delay litigation than to accelerate it, and because a non-market interest rate gives one party an incentive to delay (and the other to accelerate), a fixed rate obligation is likely to lead to delay (which, in violation of the assumption of frictionless markets, is costly for the parties and the court together). If interest rates have gone up (so the original fixed interest rate is below market), the defendant will have incentive to delay; alternatively, if interest rates have gone down (so the original rate is above market), the plaintiff will have incentive to delay. In contrast, with a floating market interest rate, because the plaintiff is not receiving an above-market interest rate and the defendant is not paying a below-market rate neither party has an incentive to delay.

More generally, there is a broad class of cases that involve choosing among multiple remedies that could in principle compensate a successful plaintiff. Many of these examples involve whether to make an ex-ante or an ex-post calculation of damages.61 The choice of a fixed or floating prejudgment interest rate is such an example as the fixed rate (the market interest rate at the date of injury) is an ex-ante calculation whereas the floating rate (say, a series of yearly interest rates from the date of injury to the date of the award) is an ex-post calculation. From an expected value perspective, both ex-ante and ex-post calculations will compensate the successful plaintiff. The reverse MM theorem provides a framework for the court to use to allow it to resolve these issues efficiently because it will focus the court’s attention on the informational, incentive and tax differences across the alternative rules and their impact on the parties.62

V.  Why the Oversight?

The question, “if you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” has been a cliché since at least the time of Aristotle.63 The variant here is if the reverse MM theorem is such a useful framework for the law, why hasn’t it already been adopted? One answer is that it has in that so many of the ideas economists have developed using the reverse MM theorem, such as asymmetric information and agency costs, have been incorporated into the law. However, the reverse MM theorem itself has not been generally and widely adopted as an ordering principle, which is its incremental value after six decades of scholars building out its main insight. Of course, as an intellectual framework or ordering principle, its exclusion does not withhold any specific idea or preclude any specific analysis. What is lost is a more effective way of ordering and drawing upon knowledge, which still leaves the question.

As for the failure of transactional lawyers to adopt the reverse MM theorem a possible partial explanation is that the theorem would often apply in an environment where both value creation and value distribution are taking place simultaneously. As described above, mergers and acquisition negotiations, including negotiations of representations and warranties and choosing a particular acquisition or merger structure, are simultaneously both cooperative and competitive.64 In such circumstances, the competitive aspects frequently overshadow the cooperative aspects.65 The reverse MM theorem addresses only the cooperative aspects, and so it does not address all aspects of the negotiations, let alone the most confrontational, which could make it easy to overlook. Nonetheless, as negotiation experts regularly emphasize, understanding the relevant issues and the potential value they have to all parties is a sure way to make one a better negotiator.66

Another possible reason for the oversight is suggested by an important recent working paper by Professors Lee Anne Fennell and Richard H. McAdams, entitled Inverted Theories.67 Fennell and McAdams argue that some of the most well-known ideas in law, including the Coase theorem, the Tiebout hypothesis, and Kaplow and Shavell’s theory of tax superiority, are commonly understood in their original form, in which they yield negative or impossibility results.68 Fennell and McAdams further argue that the heavy emphasis on the original form of the theorem and the near-total absence of its inverse or reverse form is a major error that calls for correction.69 According to Fennell and McAdams, the above theorems are better understood in their inverted form, which takes the focus off of the negative or impossibility result and puts the focus on the assumptions.70 Moreover, Fennell and McAdams attribute the emphasis on the original form of the theorem as connected with the conservative political valence of such negative or impossibility result, as opposed to the inverse, which invites an inquiry into situations where the theorem’s assumptions do not hold, which they argue is more appealing to liberals.71

Thus, as applied to the reverse MM theorem, Fennell and McAdams’ analysis suggests several reasons why the reverse MM theorem might not have caught on. First, that reverse theorems or inverted theorems are uncommon if not completely unknown in the law. The reverse MM theorem is, of course, such an inverted theorem. Moreover, the reverse MM theorem in its original forms says little about law—or at least little that is likely to appeal to lawyers—since it implies that transactional lawyers are wasting their time and their clients’ money. If the MM theorem is accurate, then lawyers are just transaction costs and add no value for their clients. That is not a theorem that lawyers (or legal academics) are likely to embrace. Finally, the MM theorem (as well as the reverse MM theorem) would seem to have little political valance, which would eliminate the ideological motivations that Fennell and McAdams credit for raising the profiles of their original, uninverted examples.


Sixty years ago, Professors Modigliani and Miller unveiled their capital structure irrelevancy theorem and revolutionized financial economics with their “bombshell assertion” that under certain idealized assumptions the total value of a firm was independent of its capital structure. Although their theorem has made little inroad into law, many ideas that have developed out of their fundamental insight—that capital structure can affect firm value only through the original MM theorem’s assumptions—are today part of the canon of foundational legal ideas, such as informational asymmetries and agency costs. However, the failure to recognize the many legal settings where the reverse MM theorem can be applied and the numerous issues it can illuminate has deprived legions of lawyers of a powerful analytical framework. Explicitly incorporating the reverse MM theorem into legal analysis and giving it a prominent place in the legal canon will help legal academics, practicing lawyers, and judges all perform their work better. That is because much legal work involves designing and executing value-enhancing capital structures, and the reverse MM theorem provides a roadmap for doing so.

  1. Franco Modigliani & Merton H. Miller, The Cost of Capital, Corporate Finance and the Theory of Investment, 48 Am. Econ. Rev. 261 (1958) [hereinafter Modigliani & Miller, Capital
  2. Schools Brief: Unlocking Corporate Finance, Economist, Dec. 8, 1990, at 81 [hereinafter Schools Brief; J. Fred Weston, What MM Have Wrought, 18 Fin. Mgmt. 29, 29 (1989) [hereinafter Weston, Wrought ]
  3. Peter L. Bernstein, Capital Ideas: The Improbable Origins of Modern Wall Street 174 (1992) [hereinafter Bernstein, Capital Ideas]. Modigliani and Miller jointly authored two more classic articles on the irrelevancy of capital structure. Franco Modigliani & Merton H. Miller, Dividend Policy, Growth and the Valuation of Shares, 34 J. Business 411 (1961) [hereinafter Modigliani & Miller, Dividends](arguing under certain idealized conditions that dividend policy had no impact on firm value); Franco Modigliani & Merton H. Miller, Corporate Income Taxes and the Cost of Capital: A Correction, 53 Am. Econ. Rev. 433 (1963) [hereinafter Modigliani & Miller, Correction](correcting calculations of value of tax shield provided by corporate debt when there is a corporate income tax).
  4. The few explicit references in the legal literature that I am aware of are William W. Bratton & Simone M. Sepe, Shareholder Power in Incomplete Markets 15-17 (Inst. Adv. Studies in Toulouse, Working Paper, Nov. 1, 2017),; Claire Hill, Securitization: A Low-Cost Sweetener for Lemons, 74 Wash. U. L.Q. 1061, 1084-1106 (1996); Peter H. Huang & Michael S. Knoll, Corporate Finance, Corporate Law, and Finance Theory, 74 S. Cal. L. Rev. 175 (2000); Michael Knoll, Taxing Prometheus: How the Corporate Interest Deduction Discourages Innovation and Risk Taking, 38 Vill. L. Rev. 1461, 1467 n.24 (1993); Michael S. Knoll & Daniel M.G. Raff, A Comprehensive Theory of Deal Structure: Understanding How Transactional Structure Creates Value, 69 Tex. L. Rev. 35 (2010) [ hereinafter Knoll & Raff, Comprehensive]; Kimberly D. Krawiec, Derivatives, Corporate Hedging, and Shareholder Wealth: Modigliani-Miller Forty Years Later, 1998 U. Ill. L. Rev. 1039, 1058-78 (1998).
  5. See, e.g., Ward Farnsworth, The Legal Analyst: A Toolkit for Thinking about the Law (2007) (listing and explaining more than thirty standard legal moves across economics, philosophy, psychology and other fields, but not including MM).
  6. Ronald H. Coase, The Problem of Social Cost, 3 J. L. & Econ. 1 (1960).
  7. The development of the MM theorems in the context of contemporary practice and academic understanding is colorfully described by Bernstein, Capital Ideas, supra note 3, at 163-80.
  8.  Schools Brief, supra note 2, at 82.
  9. Stephen Ross, Randolph Westerfield, Jeffrey Jaffe & Bradford Jordan, Corporate Finance 497 (11th ed. 2016) [hereinafter Ross et al., Corporate Finance].
  10. The implied return on equity is the inverse of the price-earnings ratio or the earnings-price ratio. According to Miller, at the time they were working on their first article, interest rates on corporate debt were around three to five percent, whereas the cost of equity capital ran from fifteen to twenty percent. Merton H. Miller, The Modigliani-Miller Propositions After Thirty Years, 2 J. Econ. Persp. 99, 100 (1988) [hereinafter Miller, Thirty].
  11. Bernstein, Capital Ideas, supra note 3, at 167.
  12. Modigliani & Miller, Capital, supra note 1.
  13. Five years later, MM made a similar claim about dividend policy. Modigliani & Miller, Dividends, supra note 3.
  14.    MM derived two more theorems from MMI. MMII describes the relationship between leverage and the required return on equity. MMIII holds that the weighted average cost of capital to the firm is independent of capital structure.
  15. James R. Vertin, Editorial Board Commentary, 20 CFA Dig. 56, 57 (1990) (appended to abstract of Weston, Wrought and recommending that article to subscribers because of Weston’s “comprehensive review of the research that flowed from [MM’s] bombshell assertions”).
  16. Ross et al., Corporate Finance, supra note 9, at 505. In their original article, MM drew an analogy to milk. Although cream sells for more than whole milk, which in turn sells for more than skim milk, a dairy farmer cannot increase the value of the milk by separating whole milk into cream and skim milk. Modigliani & Miller, Capital, supra note 1, at 279-80.
  17. The journal that published MM’s original article, the American Economic Review, published five critiques and a brief sur-reply that Miller credited with publicizing MM’s methods and results. Bernstein, Capital Ideas, supra note 3, at 175.
  18. Id. at 174-77.
  19.  See id. at 177-80.
  20. See id. at 181-269.
  21. Arbitrage is the simultaneous purchase and sale of the same asset (or cash flow stream) in two different markets to take advantage of price differences. Profit-seeking arbitrageurs tend to eliminate arbitrage opportunities forcing prices in separate markets to equalize. Economists use arbitrage arguments to price an asset (the price of which is unknown) in terms of a second asset (the price of which is known).
  22.  E.g., Hal R. Varian, The Arbitrage Principle in Financial Economics, 1 J. Econ. Persp. 55 (1987).
  23.  Much of that work was done by Jack L. Traynor, William F. Sharpe, John Lintner and Jas Mossin.
  24. Fischer Black & Myron Scholes, The Pricing of Options and Corporate Liabilities, 81 J. Pol. Econ. 637 (1973).
  25.    Schools Brief, supra note 2, at 82 (quoting Robert Merton).
  26.    Miller, who continued to work on capital structure during the 1960’s and 1970’s, was a notable exception to this trend. See, e.g., Merton H. Miller, The Corporate Income Tax and Corporate Financial Policies, in Stabilization Policies 381 (1963).
  27.    Miller, Thirty, supra note 10, at 100.
  28.    Id.; see also Bernstein, Capital Ideas, supra note 3, at 176-80; Clifford W. Smith, Jr., The Theory of Corporate Finance: A Historical Overview, in The Modern Theory of Corporate Finance 3, 4 (Clifford W. Smith ed., 2d ed. 1990).
  29.    The reverse MM theorem is the contrapositive of the MM theorem. The contrapositive of a theorem “if A, then B,” is “if not B, then not A.” If a theorem is true, its contrapositive must be true. The reverse MM theorem adds economic content because capital structure must affect value through the MM assumptions (not merely because some assumptions do not hold).
  30.    Michael C. Jensen & William H. Meckling, Theory of the Firm: Managerial Behavior, Agency Costs, and Ownership Structure, 3 J. Fin. Econ. 305 (1976) [ hereinafter Jensen & Meckling, Agency].
  31. Stephen Ross, The Determination of Financial Structure: The Incentive Signaling Approach, 8 Bell J. Econ. 23 (1977).
  32. The most well-known of Miller’s solo work on taxation and capital structures is Miller’s presidential address to the American Finance Association, which was published as Merton H. Miller, Debt and Taxes, 32 J. Fin. 261 (1977).
  33. E.g., Clifford Smith, Charles Smithson, & D. Sykes Wilford, Financial Engineering: Why Hedge?, in Handbook of Financial Engineering 126 (Clifford Smith & Charles Smithson eds., 1990).
  34. For examples in the legal literature where the reverse MM theorem is explicitly drawn upon, see sources cited in supra note 4.
  35. The present value of the payments on a capital lease cover the cost of the equipment less the equipment’s expected residual value plus the lessor’s return. A capital lease, which is a financing technique, stands in contrast to a short-term or operating lease, such as renting a car while on vacation, which is typically for convenience. Operating leases can be understood through the reverse MM theorem as they avoid the transaction costs in buying and selling the leased item.
  36. The tax analysis below is for the tax law before it was amended by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, Pub. L. No. 115-97, 131 Stat. 2054 (2017). Although some details, such as tax rates, change, the preference for long-term leases remains.
  37. The aircraft frame has an economically useful life of twelve years but is depreciated over seven years using the declining balance method. See IRS, How to Depreciate Property (IRS Publication 946), at 106 (2016).
  38. However, if an airline (or any U.S. taxpayer) has a net operating loss for the year, the government does not typically provide a tax refund. Instead, the taxpayer receives a net operating loss (NOL) carryforward. NOLs are not worth as much as current deductions because they can be used only if the taxpayer has positive income. See I.R.C. § 172(b)(1)(A) (2012).
  39. The safe harbor was found in I.R.C. § 168(f)(8) and was enacted in title II, § 2(a) of the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, Pub. L. No. 97-34, 95 Stat. 172, 203. For a critical, contemporary discussion of safe harbor leasing, see Alvin C. Warren & Alan J. Auerbach, Transferability of Tax Incentives and the Fiction of Safe Harbor Leasing, 95 Harv. L. Rev. 1752 (1982).
  40. Safe harbor leasing was repealed in 1982 as part of the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982, Pub. L. 97–248, 96 Stat. 324.
  41. Accordingly, lease rates today also reflect airlines’ reputations for maintenance, and the agreed upon use of the aircraft because how the aircraft is used—length of flight, altitude, etc.—impacts the aircraft’s and its engines’ residual values.
  42.  See Ira M. Millstein, The Activist Director (2017) [hereinafter Millstein, Director].
  43.   Id. at ix (italics in original).
  44. When a structure is adopted for non-efficiency reasons, the reverse MM theorem can be used to estimate the efficiency cost of not choosing the most efficient solution.
  45. For a description of the Cravath model and a discussion of its economic rationale, see William D. Henderson, The “Cravath” System: Excerpts from the Legal Profession Blog, Teaching Legal Ethics (2008), [].
  46. See Ronald J. Gilson, Value Creation by Business Lawyers: Legal Skills and Asset Pricing, 94 Yale L.J. 239 (1984) [hereinafter Gilson, Value].
  47.  Id. at 253-56.
  48.  Id. at 303-06.
  49.  Knoll & Raff, Comprehensive, supra note 4.
  50.  Id. at 48. Such a lawyer would also be less likely to fall into the trap of selecting a solution that resolves a particular problem within one silo, but inadvertently causes a larger problem within another silo. Because the reverse MM theorem explicitly invites tradeoffs across silos, practitioners are encouraged to examine the impact of a structure across all four silos.
  51.  William M. Sullivan et al., Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law 126-61 (2007) [hereinafter Carnegie Report]
  52. Knoll & Raff, Comprehensive, supra note 4, at 48.
  53.  There are more complex methods as well.
  54.  See generally James Freund, Anatomy of a Merger: Strategies and Techniques for Negotiating Corporate Acquisitions (1975) [hereinafter Freund, Anatomy]; Christopher S. Harrison, Make the Deal: Negotiating Mergers and Acquisitions (2016).
  55.  Gilson, Value, supra note 46, at 267-94.
  56.  Freund, Anatomy, supra note 54, at 229 (“I’m willing to bet my briefcase that lawyers spend more time negotiating “Representations and Warranties of the Seller” than any other single article in the typical acquisition agreement.”).
  57.    Gilson, Value, supra note 46, at 271-73.
  58. The competitive aspect of negotiating representations and warranties is exacerbated by the usual practice of negotiating only after the price and acquisition method are set.
  59.  Interest that accrues from the date of judgment until payment is post-judgment interest. Jurisdictions often have different rules for prejudgment and post-judgment interest and it is common to have a fixed statutory rate or formula for post-judgment interest even if there is not a similar rule for prejudgment interest.
  60.  Gorenstein Enterprises v. Quality Care, 874 F.2d 431 (7th Cir. 1989) (awarding prejudgment interest at defendant’s cost of unsecured borrowing); Jeffrey Colon & Michael S. Knoll, Prejudgment Interest, in Litigation Services Handbook: The Role of the Financial Expert 16.1-14 (Roman L. Weil, Daniel G. Lentz & Elizabeth A. Evans eds., 6th ed. 2017) [hereinafter Colon & Knoll, Prejudgment]; Michael S. Knoll, A Primer on Prejudgment Interest, 75 Tex. L. Rev. 293 (1996) [hereinafter Knoll, Primer]; James M. Patel, Roman L. Weil, & Mark A. Wolfson, Accumulating Damages in Litigation: The Roles of Uncertainty and Interest Rates, 11 J. L. Stud. 341 (1982) [hereinafter, Patel et al., Accumulating]. Proponents of the coerced loan theory recognize that defendant’s unsecured borrowing rate will not fully compensate plaintiff if plaintiff is an individual and the debt constitutes a large portion of plaintiff’s wealth. If plaintiff cannot readily insure against or sell the claim, then the risk of nonpayment will likely impact plaintiff’s consumption. In such cases, defendant’s borrowing rate will not fully compensate plaintiff for having funds tied up with defendant. Conversely, when plaintiff is a public corporation, or the claim is small relative to wealth, defendant’s unsecured borrowing rate is sufficient to compensate the plaintiff. Colon & Knoll, Prejudgment, at 16-17; Knoll, Primer, at 345-47; Patel et al., Accumulating, at 354-62. The above can be understood as applications of the reverse MM theorem. When informationally imperfect markets and market frictions make it impractical for plaintiff to sell a claim for its expected value, a plaintiff might require extra compensation to compensate for delay.
  61.  See generally Elizabeth A. Evans & Roman L. Weil, Ex Ante Versus Ex Post Damages Calculations, in Litigation Services Handbook: The Role of the Financial Expert 5.2-23 (Roman L. Weil, Daniel G. Lentz & Elizabeth A. Evans eds., 6th ed. 2017).
  62.  Of course, the reverse MM theorem is about economic value or efficiency; it says nothing about non-economic values, such as distributional fairness. Accordingly, if an award is made not to maximize efficiency, but with a nod towards other values, such as distributional fairness, the reverse MM theorem provides a framework through which to examine the efficiency costs of pursuing other values.
  63.  Aristotle, Politics, bk. I, ch. 11, reprinted in The Complete Works of Aristotle 1990 (Jonathan Barnes ed., 1984) (describing how the philosopher Thales, when reproached for his poverty, used his knowledge of meteorology to predict a bumper olive crop; Thales then rented all of the olive presses at a reduced rate months before the harvest; when the harvest came in as Thales anticipated, Thales rented out those presses at a substantial profit).
  64. Freund, Anatomy, supra note 54, 229-84 (representations and warranties); Martin D. Ginsburg & Jack S. Levin, Mergers, Acquisitions and Buyouts ¶104 (2001) (deal structuring).
  65.  See Roger Fisher, William L. Ury, & Bruce Patton, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (2011). Although some other authors view the Getting to Yes authors as having gone too far in the cooperative direction, the authors of Getting to Yes were early writers on negotiation to recognize the importance of the cooperative aspect.
  66.  E.g., James C. Freund, Smart Negotiating: How to Make Good Deals in the Real World (1992); G. Richard Shell, Bargaining for Advantage (2006).
  67.  Lee Anne Fennell & Richard H. McAdams, Inverted Theories (University of Chicago Coase-Sandor Institute for Law & Economics, Working Paper No. 648, 2017), []. If a theorem is of the form “if A, then B,” the inverse of the theorem holds “if not A, then not B.” In contrast with the contrapositive, which is true if the theorem is true, the inverse is not true simply because the original theorem is true.
  68.  Id. at 4-5.
  69.  Id. at 5-7.
  70.  Id. at 1-2.
  71.  Id. at 30.

Political Control Over Public Communications by Government Scientists

* Lisa Randall is the Frank B. Baird, Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University. Cass R. Sunstein is the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard University.

Recent years have seen a great deal of controversy over political control of communications by government scientists. Legitimate interests can be found on both sides of the equation. Clearly there is a strong public interest in the free flow of scientific information. On the other hand, political leaders in any administration might need advance notice of what government scientists plan to say, and they might also seek to control the timing of their presentations and announcements. Although many important questions remain to be addressed, this essay offers a first step towards a framework that is meant to accommodate these interests and that answers a series of concrete questions about when, and what kind of, political control is appropriate. The framework allows advance notice to political officials, including the White House, and also allows control over timing, without allowing censorship of the substantive content of scientific information.

I. The Problem

In a free society, scientists—even those working for the government—should have the right to communicate with the public. But government employees have long been subject to restrictions on what they can say and when they can say it, even when simply presenting scientific results.1 In recent years, both Democratic and Republican administrations have failed to develop clear principles governing political control of communications from government scientists, with potentially detrimental consequences to our nation. Our goal here is to suggest initial steps to fill this gap and answer most questions in a brief space. We emphasize that our framework is preliminary and that it leaves many open questions and a few gray areas. But in the absence of some kind of framework, we risk ad hoc judgments, inconsistency, excessive political control, and loss of the benefits that ready access to scientific information can provide.

During the Obama Administration, the effort to develop such principles produced intense internal and external controversy.2 As Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, one of the present authors (Sunstein) was directly involved in the internal debates. The defining moment came in December 2010, when Science Advisor John Holdren tried to synthesize the consensus within the White House with four defining principles.

  1. In response to media requests on scientific or technological issues, agencies should offer an “objective and nonpartisan” spokesperson.
  2. Federal scientists may speak to the media and the public about scientific and technological matters based on their official work, with appropriate coordination with their immediate supervisor and their public affairs office.
  3. In no circumstance may public affairs officers ask or direct Federal scientists to alter scientific findings.
  4. Mechanisms should be devised to resolve disputes about whether or not to proceed with public information-related activities.3

Each of these principles deserves support, but they leave many unanswered questions. Who, exactly, is an objective and nonpartisan spokesperson? What counts as “appropriate coordination” with a public affairs office? What kinds of “disputes about whether or not to proceed” are even legitimate, and what would “mechanisms” look like?  Even if public affairs officers may not “alter” scientific findings. do the four principles allow such officers to forbid disclosure of such findings? How does an agency treat data not originating within its organization? And how do we guarantee that set policies are actually implemented?

In response to this guidance, a number of government agencies developed implementation policies, some of which tried to address these issues through formal, publicly available documents or through other informal practices.4 Even so, critical gaps remain in understanding policy and practice. Under President Donald Trump, the White House has yet to announce its own principles, and many people are concerned by what they see as a precipitous trend toward severe restrictions on communications from government scientists.5 We think that a few important distinctions, not yet part of the debate, can cut through the fog – and show how to accommodate legitimate concerns of both government scientists and political officials.

II. The Concerns

Communications offices and other public officials—in, say, the White House or the office of a cabinet head—are often concerned about the potentially negative consequences of communications between government scientists and the public. This concern is sometimes legitimate. Issues range from those with obvious political valence to those that are more abstract; they may involve avian flu, particulate matter, asteroid collisions, artificial intelligence, distracted driving, the origins of life, or nuclear material, for example. Government officials who oversee federal agencies might ask for one of four things from government scientists.

A notation before we begin: we deliberately phrase the concerns in abstract terms, without reference to particular cases. Claims about any such cases will be contestable. But for identifiable reasons, the concerns are manifested in numerous real-world controversies.6

  1. Public officials might insist on advance notice of public communications from government scientists. They might fear surprises. They might not want to have to address questions from the press or the public without having time to prepare. They might need to work with scientists to learn what to say and how to say it.
  2. Public officials might want to control the timing of those communications. A disclosure of a scientific finding might disrupt a policy announcement scheduled for that same day. Perhaps the disclosure would distract attention from the announcement or be in some tension with it. For reasons that are not self-evidently illegitimate, political officials, including the White House communications team or even the president personally, might want the announcement to occur only after some kind of specified delay.
  3. They might want to control the content of those communications, in extreme circumstances by forbidding their disclosure altogether (a “gag rule”). Such restrictions might range from political officials who insist that government scientists describe their findings in a particular way, perhaps to ensure clarity and to avoid confusion or to more troublesome cases in which officials think that the disclosure of the findings, even if valid, risk jeopardizing some identifiable political position or goal. For that reason, they might tell government scientists that they may not speak publicly at all.

To be more concrete: Political officials might believe that a new finding—for example, involving the carcinogenic properties of some commonly used product, or other health risks associated with using it—might create public alarm. They might judge that the finding is too preliminary, or in conflict with other findings. They might believe that even if the finding is neither preliminary nor contested, it might produce a kind of panic, unjustified by the science at such.7 Alternatively, they might believe that some finding has an obvious or potential policy implication—say, that greenhouse gases should be regulated, that some chemical should be banned, or that the argument for some proposed law, opposed by the President, is actually quite strong. Political officials might want to prevent the public announcement of findings with such unwelcome implications, which may disrupt ongoing debates, and give fuel to political adversaries.

  1. They might want to control what agency employees say, even when not speaking on the agency’s behalf. It is true that some high-level public officials believe that whenever government employees speak in public, they speak for government; they never speak in their private capacity. And that is undoubtedly true for some officials (such as the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense). But by tradition, government scientists have sometimes had the authority to say that they do not speak on behalf of their agency.8 Even so, the White House, or offices of Cabinet heads, might want to limit what they say in public.

For its part, science that comes from the government can be categorized in three ways:

  1. Policy relevance. Some scientific findings are tightly connected with high-level policy debates. For example, a government scientist might conclude that the climate change problem is likely to be far more (or less) serious than existing research suggests, in the sense that anticipated warming, by 2100, will be higher (or lower) than previously projected.9 Or a government scientist might conclude that some chemical, now in widespread use, poses serious health risks for children; public disclosure of that finding will predictably produce a market reaction, with economic consequences, and trigger a demand (and perhaps a legal requirement) for regulatory action.
  2. No policy relevance. Some scientific findings have no evident connection with high-level policy debates. For example, a government scientist might make some new finding about black holes, or might offer fresh information about a new species of dinosaur or bird. In such cases, let us simply stipulate that public disclosure of the relevant findings will not raise issues or produce concerns that could possibly be of interest to policymakers.
  3. Potential policy relevance. Some scientific findings might seem to government scientists and to most people to have no connection with high-level policy debates, even when those who work in the White House or an office of an official in the Cabinet might not find that entirely clear. In fact, this kind of disconnect—between political leadership and scientists—is quite common. For example, some findings with respect to dwindling fish populations, ocean acidification, or the spread of influenza might seem technical, but they might be invoked in debates about policy issues.

III. Ten Cases

With these distinctions in mind, we can identify ten kinds of cases, five of which seem straightforward.

A. Straightforward Cases

  1. There is no reasonable objection when political officials merely seek advance notice of a scientific finding that has policy relevance. Both communications offices and policy officials can legitimately contend that in order to do their jobs, they need to have a clear sense of scientific announcements that bear on policy. The issue here is only how far in advance the notice should be.
  2. Political officials may appropriately control the timing of release of a scientific finding with manifest policy relevance. Officials can legitimately argue that they are entitled to control the policy agenda and that it is appropriate to ensure that scientific announcements from government employees do not compromise that agenda. Outside of the most unusual circumstances, there is an important qualification: There should be a fixed limit to the delay.
  3. If a scientific finding has potential policy relevance, political officials can appropriately seek advance notice of its disclosure. Officials should be entitled to have a clear sense of scientific announcements that might bear on policy discussions, even if we emphasize the word “might.”
  4. If a scientific finding has even potential policy relevance, it remains legitimate for political officials to control the timing of its disclosure. The considerations in point 2 above apply here as well.
  5. No democratic government should seek to control the content of disclosure of scientific findings that lack policy relevance. Such findings might be intriguing, controversial, or disturbing, but policy officials, not versed in science, have no business altering them in any way.

B. Difficult Cases

Five cases might be viewed as more controversial, and so we approach them with questions, to which we offer our preferred answers:

1. Is it appropriate for public officials to seek advance notice of disclosure of scientific findings without policy relevance?

At first glance, the answer would seem to be no. Why should officials receive advance notice of findings that lack policy relevance? But there are two complications, which make a negative answer too simple. The first is that officials might not trust the scientists’ judgment about policy relevance; they might want advance notice of a very broad set of disclosures in order to test that judgment and to ensure that it is reasonable or right. The second complication is that some such findings might attract public attention, which means that communications offices and policy officials might want advance notice. For some and perhaps many agencies, it would be simplest to have no clearance process for scientific findings that fall in this category. But a more general clearance process might be justified, so long as it is defended and administered with the single goal of preventing surprises and allowing preparation for questions from the public.

2. Is it appropriate for public officials to seek to control the timing of disclosure of scientific findings without policy relevance?

At first glance, the answer again would seem to be no. By hypothesis, the disclosure will not produce real concerns from the standpoint of officials themselves. But if the findings are potentially newsworthy and might attract public attention, it would not necessarily be inappropriate for public officials to say: tomorrow, not today. Again, the debate would center on what the timing should be.

3. Is it ever appropriate for public officials to forbid the announcement of scientific findings, or to prohibit government scientists from presenting their work in public?

At first glance, the answer to this question is also no. Recall, however, that the principles announced during the Obama Administration do not seem to offer an answer. They forbid political interference with the substance of the science, with the ban on alteration of scientific findings. But they do not clearly forbid political officials from saying: you may not appear in public, or you may not say that in public.10

In some cases, such prohibitions might be legitimate. Suppose, for example, that political officials want scientists to do science—and not to travel to various places, to appear on panels, or to become public figures. Within any administration, the public appearances of high-level officials are policed (it is to be hoped for legitimate reasons). If controls on public appearances are based on a neutral principle (“do your job”), they are unexceptionable.

The most challenging cases arise when a ban on a public announcement grows out of some kind of political uneasiness with its content. If a scientist will say something in tension with a political commitment of the administration—for example, that genetically modified foods are dangerous, that secondhand smoking is not so dangerous, that depletion of the ozone layer is not such a problem—political officials might say: we will not alter what you say, but we do not want you to say it. It is not entirely implausible to suggest that while there should be a flat rule against political interference with content, there should be no such flat rule against political interference with public appearances or announcements.

We think that in a free society, such interference is clearly legitimate only when it is based on a neutral principle, and that it should be presumed to be illegitimate if it is based on political uneasiness with its content. In such cases, a prohibition on public appearances or announcements should be treated as analogous to interference with content, and should be governed by similar principles—to which we now turn.

4. Is it appropriate for public officials to control the content of disclosure of scientific findings with policy relevance?

This may well be the most important and challenging question. We think that the answer depends on the meaning of “control the content.”

(a) It would never be appropriate for policymakers to direct government scientists to misreport or misrepresent the science. Policymakers have no business distorting the evidence and the facts. This conclusion is consistent with that offered during the Obama Administration.11

(b) It can be appropriate for policymakers to direct government scientists not to venture into policymaking domains that do not involve the science, strictly speaking. If policymakers want to restrict government scientists to science, and to direct scientists not to offer judgments about regulation or legislation, they are entitled to do that so long as there is no conflict with their scientific integrity.

(c) So long as there is no violation of (a), it would be appropriate for communications offices and policy officials to consult with scientists to ensure clarity and intelligibility, and to work to prevent public misunderstandings of what the science shows. This might be justified (for example) to ensure against excessive or unjustified public fear. It is important, however, that a consultation is just that, and not an order to government scientists with respect to science itself. If the question is how to present the science accurately, scientists should have the final say, so long as the question is genuinely limited to science, broadly applied.

(d) Apart from (b) and (c), there should be a very strong presumption against political interference with the content of scientific communication by government scientists, or of scientists’ decisions about how to present their results. We recognize that some circumstances can test the strength of this presumption and that reasonable people might disagree on when, if ever, it might well deserve special treatment. More difficult examples would arise when a finding might have an adverse effect on some portion of the economy, or might conflict, in some sense, with the administration’s policy positions and goals. Policymakers might not welcome disclosure of new evidence that some widely used product might be carcinogenic, not because they distrust the science, but because they believe that the evidence might create an excessive public reaction that will have serious adverse consequences on millions of people. In imaginable circumstances, a desire to avoid an excessive public reaction could justify a stronger role for policymaking officials.

It would of course be entirely acceptable for policymakers to present their own interpretation of how to construe results, or of how they believe those results should inform policy. So too, policymakers might legitimately disapprove of a presentation because they think it has not been suitably qualified. It is also critical that agencies dealing with scientific topics include scientists with expertise, and do not exclude them on the basis of prior association with the agency under previous administrations.

5. Is it appropriate for public officials to control the content of disclosure of scientific findings with potential policy relevance?

The answer is the same as for (9). To be sure, we are speaking here of merely potential, rather than clear, policy relevance, but the relevant considerations are not different.

III. Conclusions

The following matrix summarizes our conclusions:

Table 1

  Policy Relevance Potential Policy Relevance No Policy Relevance
Advance Notice Yes Yes A qualified no
Control Timing Yes (with deadline) Yes (with deadline) A qualified no
Suggest (but not require) Content Changes Yes, but with limitations, e.g., for clarity and with the understanding that scientists can reject changes that they believe incorrectly alter or suppress scientific content Yes, but with limitations, e.g., for clarity and with the understanding that scientists can reject changes that they believe incorrectly alter or suppress scientific content No

Important questions remain, such as how to guarantee information flows in accordance with the foregoing guidelines. Our hope is that at a minimum, a clear set of principles can provide a framework under which any disputes can be settled or at least addressed in a systematic and well-defined fashion. Another question is whether and when government employees are entitled to speak in their individual capacity, even when disagreeing with the policy of the agency to which they belong. This is not our central concern here, and it is too complex to resolve in this brief Essay, but agencies should work to develop clear guidelines so that their employees can have clear expectations.

Free societies are deeply skeptical, and properly so, about any efforts to control the flow of scientific information, even when that information comes from government employees. We have attempted to vindicate that skepticism here, while also identifying the most legitimate bases for political coordination and intervention. Gray areas remain, but we are hopeful that the foregoing categories and distinctions provide a promising start toward achieving the ideal of maintaining the most transparent and robust uses of science in an open and democratic society.

  1. For the most elaborate public statement, see Memorandum from John P. Holdren, Dir. of the Off. of Sci. and Tech. Pol’y, to the Heads of Exec. Dep’ts & Agencies (Dec. 17, 2010), [].
  2. For one view, see The White House’s Scientific Integrity Directive, Union Concerned Scientists, []. Additionally, consider some of the statements from agencies. E.g., Communications Policy Language: Samples from a Variety of Agencies and Departments, Off. Sci. & Tech. Pol’y, [].
  3. See Holdren, supra note 1, at 2-3.
  4. The public documents may be found online. Scientific Integrity, Off. Sci. & Tech. Pol’y, [http://‌‌‌/R29Q-WVBE].
  5. See, e.g., Dina Fine Maron, Trump Administration Restricts News from Federal Scientists at USDA, EPA, Sci. Am. (Jan. 24, 2017), []; Juliet Eliperin & Brady Dennis, Federal Agencies Ordered to Restrict their Communications, Wash. Post (Jan. 24, 2017), [‌?type‌‌=image]; Angela Chen, Trump Silences Government Scientists with Gag Orders, Verge (Jan. 24, 2017, 3:58 PM), [].
  6. See, e.g., Kenneth R. Foster et al., Phantom Risk (1993) (exploring the public concerns and tort litigation that results from preliminary, inadequate, or inconclusive evidence of risks); Kenneth L. Mossman, Radiation Risks in Perspective (2007) (exploring the public overestimation of radiation risks); Timur Kuran & Cass R. Sunstein, Availability Cascades and Risk Regulation, 51 Stan. L. Rev. 683 (1999) (tracing the cases of excessive public fear in response to scientific findings).
  7. On why this might be so, see Cass R. Sunstein, Probability Neglect: Emotions, Worst Cases, and Law, 112 Yale L.J. 61 (2002) (arguing that people tend to focus on the adverse outcome, not on its likelihood).
  8. The National Science Foundation has made this explicit in the context of NSF scientists and recipients of federal funds. See NSF Public Communications & Media Policy, Nat’l Sci. Found, [] (“NSF-funded scientists and NSF staff have the fundamental right to express their personal views, provided they specify that they are not speaking on behalf of, or as a representative of, the agency but rather in their private capacity.”).
  9. On public reactions to such findings, see Cass R. Sunstein et al., How People Update Beliefs about Climate Change: Good News and Bad News, 102 Cornell L. Rev 1431 (2017) (arguing that people who are not sure human-made climate change is occurring and oppose an international climate agreement update their beliefs in response to unexpected good news but not unexpected bad news, and people who strongly believe human-made climate change is occurring and favor an international climate agreement update their beliefs far more in response to unexpected bad news than in response to unexpected good news).
  10. See Holdren, supra note 1.
  11. Id.

An “Unusual Jurisdictional Argument”: The Codifier’s Canon in Ayestas v. Davis

* Student, Yale Law School 2019. I would like to thank Professor Jerry Mashaw for his insights on an early draft; Charlie Seidell for alerting me to this oral argument; and the editors of the Yale Journal on Regulation, especially Rachel Cheong and John Brinkerhoff, for their help developing this piece.

Not every one of a judge’s actions is judicial. Judges also engage in administrative tasks, such as hiring personnel. In Ayestas v. Davis, the Court has been asked to decide a jurisdictional question that rests on whether a particular authority was conferred on judges in their administrative or judicial capacities. This Essay offers a resolution to the jurisdictional issue by looking at the underlying statutory provision. By examining the provision’s codification in the United States Code, interpreted in light of the codifier’s canon, it can be seen that the relevant authority is judicial in nature.


It is the nature of the law that sometimes life or death determinations can hinge on technicalities. Such is the case in Ayestas v. Davis, which was argued before the Court earlier this Term. The question in that case is whether the Fifth Circuit erred in the standard it set for withholding resources to investigate and develop an ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim in the capital habeas corpus context. Arguing that the Court lacked jurisdiction to decide this issue, the Texas Solicitor General, counsel for the respondent, claimed that the authority conferred by the relevant provision, 18 U.S.C. §3599(f), was conferred to the judge in her administrative capacity, and not her judicial capacity.1 Expressing skepticism toward this argument, Justice Breyer suggested that the placement of the provision among other provisions establishing judicial duties implied that § 3599(f) is also conferred upon the judge in her judicial capacity.2

Is such an argument from placement in the Code legitimate? The Court seems to think so. For example, in Yates v. United States, the Court narrowed the meaning of the word “tangible object” in 18 U.S.C. § 1519, in part by citing the fact that the provisions surrounding it in the Code only dealt with documents and records.3 But the decision in Yates was not uncontroversial. Soon after the decision was handed down, Tobias Dorsey, a former attorney for the House Office of Legislative Counsel, noted that a little-known provision appearing in Title 18—along with a number of other titles—seems to say that courts may not invoke a statutory provision’s placement or caption in the Code as indicative of legislative intent.4 The provision Dorsey pointed to is a legislated canon, a congressional instruction to the courts regarding how they should interpret statutes. That Justice Breyer seems prepared to flout its direction raises deep questions about the relationship between the legislative and judicial branches, including whether Congress can restrict to which tools a judge can reach when seeking to resolve ambiguities in the law.

Given this potential conflict between the Court and Congress, it would be ideal if such invocations of placement in the Code could be reconciled to Congress’s enacted interpretive instruction. In a recent Comment in the Yale Law Journal, I argued that, in fact, they can be.5 I contend that this interpretive rule—which I call the codifier’s canon—is consistent with certain invocations of a provision’s placement. Specifically, the codifier’s canon allows judges to draw interpretive inferences from codifications decisions made by Congress, but blocks off from consideration any editorial changes introduced by the non-legislative codifiers—that is, the Office of the Law Revision Counsel.

Yates, for example, exhibits such a reconcilable invocation—relying upon organizational features in the Code that were deliberated upon by Congress.

In this Essay, I explain how Justice Breyer’s suggested consideration of placement is also legitimate given a proper interpretation of the codifier’s canon. This Essay proceeds in two Parts. Part I briefly explains the codifier’s canon and the potential role of codification in statutory interpretation. Part II then provides an overview of the relevant issues in Ayestas v. Davis, including the context of Justice Breyer’s remarks. It then examines the statutory history, with particular attention to codification, for evidence of legislative intent. As the analysis of Justice Breyer’s comments reveals, by understanding the function of the codifier’s canon—and the role of codification more generally—one can more accurately and legitimately engage in statutory interpretation.

I. The Codifier’s Canon: Learning from Codification

The Court has often struggled with the impact of codification on substantive questions of law. Maine v. Thiboutot6 is one remarkable example. There the dissent and majority sparred over the relevance of a statutory phrase that was modified during an early attempt at codifying the federal laws. As the dissent pointed out, the majority relied on a change introduced by the codifiers to vastly expand the set of rights for which Section 1983 provides a cause of action.7 The change was introduced despite significant effort “to expunge all substantive alterations” resulting from the codification process.8 The fact that such efforts were ultimately unable to prevent the Court from finding the meaning of the statute changes helps to illustrate why Congress saw the need to legislate particular instructions for how the Court should treat elements added by the codifiers. As elaborated below, the codifier’s canon is such an interpretive direction, intended to help courts avoid being misled by editorial decisions that cannot rightfully thought to be expressions of legislative intent.9

The codifier’s canon has been enacted into at least fourteen titles of the United States Code, its language nearly identical in each instance.10 The version in the title at issue in Ayestas is typical: “No inference of a legislative construction is to be drawn by reason of the chapter in Title 18 . . . in which any particular section is placed, nor by reason of the catchlines [captions] used in such title.”11 On its face, the rule construction appears to prohibit entirely the invocation of the captions or placement of a section in the Code, throwing into doubt the argument alluded to by Justice Breyer. While this is the interpretation assumed by some scholars, a careful reading of the provision’s text and its history reveals a much narrower meaning.

The codifier’s canon only appears in positive law titles of the Code.12 These are titles that have been significantly edited and restructured by the codifier’s office and then enacted into law. The process of positive law codification repeals and replaces the law that the positive law title is intended to codify.13 This is in contrast to non-positive law titles, which are mere editorial compilations of enacted law, but not enacted into law themselves.14 Ideally, positive law codification should be done in such a manner so as not to change the meaning of the underlying law in a substantive manner. But that is a herculean task. When deciding where to place a provision in the Code, the codifiers must determine the intentions of Congress when the provisions were enacted—an event that may have occurred decades before. There is a risk that they will make a mistake, resulting in an organizational decision that implies some incorrect meaning. The case of Maine v. Thiboutot,15 discussed above, is a one illustration of these sort of concerns.16

The Members of Congress, when enacting the first titles into positive law, were highly cognizant of this risk.17 For this reason, they added the codifier’s canon to the title in order to direct interpreters not to rely on organizational decisions made by the codifiers during the positive law codification process. But note that this same concern does not apply to amendments to the positive law title. Once a positive law title is enacted, it becomes a statute. Any subsequent change must be in the form of a congressional amendment. Thus, every subsequent amendment to a positive law title includes instructions within the statute itself as to how the amendments should be codified. Enacted into law like any other part of the statutory text, these organizational decisions—including where in the Code the statute should be placed—can legitimately be relied upon as evidence of congressional intent.

This gives rise to a simple rule of thumb: “it is legitimate to cite the placement of a provision in a positive law title so long as the provision was enacted after the title itself was passed into positive law.”18 This rule is reflected in the text of the codifier’s canon. For example, the version of the canon that appears in Title 18 directs that “[n]o inference of a legislative construction is to be drawn by reason of the chapter in Title 18 . . . as set out in section 1 of this Act, in which any particular section is placed, nor by reason of the catchlines used in such title.”19 This rule was enacted as part of a statute that included the full text of Title 18, as prepared by the codifier’s office. The text of Title 18 appeared in section 1 of the enacting statute.

Thus, by pointing to the title “as set out in section 1 of this Act,” rather than using the language “this Title,” the legislated canon references only the version of the title included in the Act itself. Reading the text literally and narrowly, the prohibition on referencing placement and captions thus applies only to invoking these features of the title as first enacted into positive law.20

In other words, the codifier’s canon only prohibits invoking placement or caption decisions made in the context of the positive law codification process. No reference is made to future statutes that direct how amendments to Title 18 should be organized. In the next Part, I apply the codifier’s canon to the law relevant to Ayestas. As I explain, the proper interpretation of the codifier’s canon supports the legitimacy of Justice Breyer’s argument and suggests that Texas’s jurisdictional argument should not prevail.

II. The Judge as Administrator? An “Unusual” Jurisdictional Argument

In this Part, I turn to apply the codifier’s canon to the facts and law of Ayestas. The central question is whether the judge’s authority to grant funds to habeas petitioners for experts and investigators is conferred to her in her judicial or administrative capacity. While seemingly a mere semantic distinction, the consequences are severe for petitioners, as a judge’s decisions to deny funding would be effectively unreviewable if such decisions are determined to be administrative in nature. In the first Section, I outline the relevant law and explain why the question is ultimately one of congressional intent. In the second section, I invoke codification to gain insight into Congress’s understanding the relevant provision. Through the lens of the codifier’s canon, it is clear that Justice Breyer was right to be skeptical of Texas’s jurisdictional argument.

A. A Jurisdictional Boundary: The Administrative and Judicial Capacities of the Court

In 18 U.S.C. § 3599(f), Congress provided that federal courts in post-conviction capital cases involving indigent defendants should fund “investigative, expert, or other services [that] are reasonably necessary for the representation of the defendant, whether in connection with issues relating to guilt or the sentence.” The Fifth Circuit has interpreted the requirement of being “reasonably necessary” as meaning that a petitioner is only entitled to such funding if he or she can demonstrate a “substantial need” for the services, requiring a “substantiated argument, not speculation, about what the prior counsel did or omitted doing.”21 By setting this high bar, the Fifth Circuit broke with the Sixth Circuit, setting a standard that makes it much more difficult for indigent death-row inmates to challenge the effectiveness of their trial lawyers through federal habeas petitions.22

In Ayestas v. Davis, the Court granted certiorari to address whether the Fifth Circuit erred in its demanding interpretation of what “reasonably necessary” means in the context of § 3599(f); but when the case came up for oral argument another issue occupied much of the courtroom discussion. In particular, at least some of the Justices seemed interested in what Justice Breyer referred to as an “unusual jurisdictional argument” raised by the Texas Solicitor General, representing the respondent, Lorie Davis, the Director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.23 In the respondent’s brief, Texas argued that the denial of funding under § 3599(f) could not be reviewed by the Court because it was a nonjudicial “administrative” order.24

The jurisdictional argument was not argued in the court below, and no other circuit court has addressed this precise question. However, at least seven circuits have addressed a similar argument, ruling in such a manner as to give credence to Texas’s claim. When jurisdictional issues are raised, these circuits have held that a district court’s determination with regard to Criminal Justice Act (CJA) fee compensation, under 18 U.S.C. § 3006A, is not appealable.25 That conclusion is based on a judgment that such a decision is a mere “administrative act,” not a “judicial decision.”26 In distinguishing the decision as administrative, the courts pointed to two key indicia: (1) the decision is made by the district court through a “non-adversarial” process;27 and (2) the CJA provided for a particular appeals process, namely a form of “minimal review by the chief judge of the circuit.”28 In this way, the setting of compensation under the CJA does seem to mirror many other, more clearly administrative decisions made by district judges and subject to the approval of the chief circuit judge, such as the assignment of temporary bankruptcy referees29 and the hiring of law clerks.30

The circuit courts’ decisions were based on an interpretation of 28 U.S.C. § 1291 as granting jurisdiction only for judicial—as opposed to administrative—decisions.31 The Supreme Court has ruled similarly with regard to its own jurisdiction on Article III grounds, namely that “[w]hen judges perform administrative functions, their decisions are not subject to [the Supreme Court’s] review.”32 The Supreme Court had weighed similar indicia as the lower courts in judging whether a particular decision is made in a judicial or administrative capacity. Specifically, the Court has looked to whether a decision is: (1) made through an ex parte decision process;33 and (2) subject to an appeal process other than the traditional judicial hierarchy, such as review by the Secretary of Treasury34 or the Secretary of War.35

Both of these indicia have constitutional valences. The Court has indicated that a decision cannot validly be an exercise of “judicial power” if not acting on issues “presented in an adversary context.”36 Similarly, with regard to non-traditional appeals processes, the Court has suggested that there would be “constitutional questions” raised by an “arrangement” in which “an entity not wielding judicial power might review the decision of an Article III court.”37 But while these issues have driven the Court to invoke constitutional avoidance in determining whether a particular duty is administrative or judicial,38 the Court is fairly clear that the question is ultimately a statutory one: did Congress intend to confer the authority to the judge in her judicial or her administrative capacity?39 Ultimately, what the Court is looking for is evidence of congressional intent.

In her brief, the respondent argued that both of the aforementioned indicia augur in favor of finding a funding decision under § 3599(f) to be administrative in nature. But the argument is not particularly strong. First, Texas pointed to the fact that the § 3599(f) motions can be submitted ex parte to the district judge.40 But that is not dispositive, since, for example, the determination of whether one is entitled to a mental-health expert is made through a similarly ex parte proceeding, and yet such determinations are appealable judicial decisions.41 Second, Texas pointed to the fact that the statute establishes a process by which the amount of funding awarded under § 3599(f) is reviewed by the chief judge of the circuit if it is in excess of $7,500.42 This argument, while similarly inconclusive, at least has precedent in its favor.

As with regard to CJA compensation decisions, this review structure has been interpreted by the Tenth Circuit as implying that appellate courts do not have jurisdiction to review decisions regarding the amount of funding awarded in response to a § 3599(f) request.43 Of course, a lower court’s interpretation may not persuade the Court. But even if it did, the decision would not determine the jurisdictional question in Ayestas. While deciding the amount of funding might be administrative, it may very well be a judicial determination as to whether § 3599(f) services are “reasonably necessary” within the meaning of the statute. In fact, such a distinction was made with regard to CJA fees by the Tenth Circuit, which allows appeals of decisions not to compensate counsel at all.44 Thus, there is not an unambiguous case in favor of construing a decision on a § 3599(f) motion to be administrative in nature.

At oral arguments, Justice Breyer expressed skepticism towards Texas’s argument, pointing toward evidence in § 3599(f) that the Congress intended to confer authority to the judge in her judicial capacity. First, he pointed to the plain meaning of the text—which says, “the court may authorize”—as suggesting that a judicial capacity was understood. Then, after a brief exchange with the respondent, he said that the provision in question is “in with other statutes that talk about [the judge’s] judicial duties.”45 In context, it appears that Justice Breyer was referencing the codification of the statutory provision enacting the provision of funds for investigators and experts—that is, § 3599—alongside other statues that, in the Justice’s mind, unambiguously describe judicial duties.

To which other provisions in the Code Justice Breyer was referring is not altogether clear. For example, he might have been thinking of the other provisions appearing in the same chapter of the Code as § 3599, which all relate to the death penalty. Alternatively, he may have been referring specifically to the other subsections of § 3599, which concern the appointing of counsel to defendants charged with crime punishable by death—a decision that has been held to be reviewable by the Court.46

Regardless of which particular part of the Code Justice Breyer had in mind, it is reasonably clear that he was considering an argument based on the placement of § 3599(f) in the United States Code. As such, the argument must be reconciled with the codifier’s canon to be legitimate. The next Section explores the statutory history of § 3599(f), which confirms the legitimacy of Justice Breyer’s argument from codification and strongly suggests that Texas’s jurisdictional argument should not prevail.

B. The Codifier’s Canon Applied: An Argument from Codification

As reflected in Justice Breyer’s comments during oral arguments, a provision’s codification is frequently looked at as evidence of congressional intent. A key lesson for applying the codifier’s canon, however, is that an argument from codification must look to statutory history. Here, statutory history not only confirms the legitimacy of the argument from placement, but also provide further evidence to refute Texas’s argument that decisions to deny funding are made in an administrative capacity.

The codifier’s canon allows the statutory provision at issue in Ayestas—18 U.S.C. § 3599(f)—to be relied upon by interpreters. As outlined in Part I, the relevant question is whether the provision was added after the positive law codification of the title. Title 18 was enacted as a positive law title in 1948.47 The USA Patriot Improvement and Reauthorization Act, which first added § 3599(f) to Title 18, was enacted in 2006.48 Thus, the codifier’s canon permits arguments based on the provision’s placement in the Code. Justice Breyer’s line of argument can go forward. But the fact that the provision’s placement can be legitimately invoked without running afoul of the codifier’s canon does not imply that it is necessarily persuasive.

The strongest argument from placement—and the one that Justice Breyer likely had in mind—is that § 3599(f) appears in a section of Title 18 authorizing judges to appoint counsel in habeas cases, a role that has already been implicitly held to be judicial. As alluded to above, in addition to authorizing funds for investigators and experts, § 3599 directs district judges to appoint counsel to indigent defendants for habeas proceedings and provides that the appointed counsel may be “replaced . . . upon motion of the defendant.”49 While no standard is provided in the statute for evaluating those motions, the Court, in Martel v. Clair,50 held that it should be decided “in the interests of justice,” adopting the same standard utilized by such motions in non-capital cases under 18 U.S.C. § 3006A. By taking the appeal in Clair and judging the district court for abuse of discretion, the Court implied that decisions regarding the appointing of counsel are undertaken in the judge’s judicial capacity. Such a determination is highly reasonable, since a judgement about the propriety of replacing counsel, for example, requires making judgements based on many of the same facts and laws that appear before the judge as part of the core case.

The subsection of interest in Ayestas, § 3599(f), was added to Title 18 by the same statute and as part of the same section of the Code as § 3599(e), the provision at issue in Martel and, more recently, Christeson.51 Nothing on the face of the statute seems to suggest that Congress intended for a judge to exercise her authority under § 3955(f) in a capacity different from the capacity in which she is authorized under § 3955(e). In fact, the only plausible distinguishing factor is the somewhat unusual review process for fees and expenses under § 3955(f). In contrast, nothing is specified with regard to appeals for motions under § 3955(e). But it seems farfetched to rely upon that as evidence the Congress intended determinations of whether to award fees and expenses to be administrative in nature.

This is particularly true given § 3955’s statutory history. Although first added to Title 18 in 2006, the statutory scheme had been in force since 1988, when it was enacted as part of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988.52 The statute, which directed the section be added to 21 U.S.C. § 848, enacted a section essentially identical to the modern 18 U.S.C. § 3599, but with one major difference—no special review procedure is described. Thus, there is nothing in the original version of the provision to suggest that Congress intended for § 3599(f) to define an administrative duty. Unless one were to concede to an argument from constitutional avoidance, the statutory argument for finding no jurisdiction to review § 3599(f) claims is weak.

Nor is the weight of the constitutional questions particularly significant. Review of fees and expenses above $7,500 by the chief judge is not review by “an entity not wielding judicial power.” A chief judge can wield judicial power even when acting alone, much as the Justices do, for example, in the context of their circuit assignments.53 Congress is free to “ordain and establish” the lower courts in any manner that it wishes, making a single judge appellate panel prima facie unproblematic.54 Further, there is nothing inherently nonjudicial about a limited ex parte proceeding. A temporary restraining order, for example, is issued in a judge’s judicial capacity55 and yet is often done in an ex parte manner.56 While the Court has held that parties to a case must be adversarial to satisfy Article III,57 this requirement is met even if one of the parties does not participate in some particular part of the proceeding.58 Since the State, in this case through the director of Texas’s criminal justice system, regularly contests funding decisions, there are clearly adversarial parties for the purposes of Article III. Since neither of the potential routes toward constitutional avoidance are plausible, there is little justification for viewing a determination of whether a defendant is entitled to fees and expenses to cover investigators and experts to be anything other than a judicial duty. Thus, congressional intent, as expressed through the codification history, ought to be adhered to and Texas’s jurisdictional argument should not succeed.


The codifier’s canon, enacted into law and appearing in Title 18, directs judges to draw interpretive inferences only from placement and captioning decisions that originate with Congress and not the office of the codifiers. Since the decision to place § 3599(f) in a section of the Code authorizing other judicial duties was made by Congress, Justice Breyer was right to turn to that provision’s organizational context as evidence of legislative intent. In fact, considering the provision’s placement, in light of the statutory history, Texas’s jurisdictional argument is not persuasive.

  1. See Ayestas v. Stephens, 817 F.3d 888 (5th Cir. 2016), cert. granted in part sub nom. Ayestas v. Davis, 137 S. Ct. 1433 (2017).
  2. Transcript of Oral Argument at 42-43, Ayestas v. Davis, No. 16-6795 (Oct. 30, 2017).
  3. 135 S. Ct. 1074, 1083-84 (2015).
  4. Tobias A. Dorsey, Some Reflections on Yates and the Statutes We Threw Away, 18 Green Bag 2d 377 (2015).
  5. Daniel B. Listwa, Comment, Uncovering the Codifier’s Canon: How Codification Informs Interpretation, 127 Yale L.J. 464 (2017).
  6. 448 U.S. 1 (1980).
  7. Id. at 16-17.
  8. Id. at 19.
  9. Elsewhere I have drawn a distinction between the generic codifier’s canon and the legislated codifier’s canon. See Listwa, supra note 5, at 468 n.21. The generic codifier’s canon is simply the general principle that interpreters should distinguish between editorial decisions in the Code that reflect Congress’s intent and those that instead were introduced by the codifiers. The legislated codifier’s canon is the specific statutory text directing that interpreters ought not, in certain instances, draw inferences from a provision’s caption or placement in the Code. In this Essay, I only discuss that legislated codifier’s canon and thus refer to it merely as the “codifier’s canon.”
  10. Act of Sept. 6, 1966, Pub. L. No. 89-554, § 7(e), 80 Stat. 378, 631 (codified at 5 U.S.C. Front Matter at 10 (2012)); Act of Aug. 10, 1956, Pub. L. No. 84-1028, § 49(e), 70A Stat. 1, 640 (codified at 10 U.S.C. Front Matter at 12 (2012)); Act of Aug. 31, 1954, Pub. L. No. 83-740, § 5, 68 Stat. 1012, 1025 (codified at 13 U.S.C. Front Matter at 1 (2012)); Act of Aug. 4, 1949, Pub. L. No. 81-207, § 3, 63 Stat. 495, 557 (codified at 14 U.S.C. Front Matter at 2-3 (2012)); Act of June 25, 1948, Pub. L. No. 80-772, § 19, 62 Stat. 683, 862 (codified at 18 U.S.C. Front Matter at 5 (2012)); Act of June 25, 1948, Pub. L. No. 80-773, § 33, 62 Stat. 869, 991 (28 U.S.C. Front Matter at 5 (2012)); Act of Sept. 13, 1982, Pub. L. No. 97-258, § 4(e), 96 Stat. 877, 1067 (codified at 31 U.S.C. Front Matter at 6 (2012)); Act of Nov. 3, 1998, Pub. L. No. 105-354, §4(e), 112 Stat. 3238, 3245 (codified at 36 U.S.C. Front Matter at 11 (2012)); Act of Aug. 12, 1970, Pub. L. No. 91-375, § 11(b), 84 Stat. 719, 785 (codified at 39 U.S.C. Front Matter at 7 (2012)); Act of Aug. 21, 2002, Pub. L. No. 107-217, § 5(f), 116 Stat. 1062, 1304 (codified at 40 U.S.C. Front Matter at 7 (2012)); Act of Oct. 22, 1968, Pub L. No. 90-620, § 2(e), 82 Stat. 1238, 1306 (codified at 44 U.S.C. Front Matter at 3 (2012)); Act of Aug. 26, 1983, Pub. L. No. 98-89, § 2(e), 97 Stat. 500, 598 (codified at 46 U.S.C. Front Matter at 10 (2012), applying to subtitle II); Act of Nov. 23, 1988, Pub. L. No. 100-710, § 105(d), 102 Stat. 4735, 4751 (codified at 46 U.S.C. Front Matter at 10 (2012), applying to subtitle III); Act of Oct. 17, 1978, Pub. L. No. 95-473, § 3(e), 92 Stat. 1337, 1466 (codified at 49 U.S.C. Front Matter at 14 (2012)).
  11. Act of June 25, 1948, Pub. L. No. 80-772, § 19, 62 Stat. 683, 862 (codified at 18 U.S.C. Front Matter at 5 (2012)).
  12. Positive Law Codification, Off. L. Revision Couns., [].
  13. Id.
  14. Id.
  15. 448 U.S. 1 (1980).
  16. See supra notes 6-8 and accompanying text.
  17. See Listwa, supra note 5, at 476-78 (discussing congressional concerns that codification would introduce inadvertent substantive changes in the law).
  18. Id. at 489.
  19. Act of June 25, 1948, Pub. L. No. 80-772, ch. 645, § 5037, 62 Stat. 683, 862 (codified at 18 U.S.C. Front Matter at 5 (2012)).
  20. Listwa, supra note 5, at 484.
  21. Ayestas v. Stephens, 817 F.3d 888, at 896 (5th Cir. 2016), cert. granted in part sub nom. Ayestas v. Davis, 137 S. Ct. 1433 (2017).
  22. See Matthews v. White, 87 F.3d 756, 760 n.2 (6th Cir. 2015) (rejecting the “substantial necessity” standard); Wright v. Angelone, 151 F.3d 151 (4th Cir. 1998) (same).
  23. Transcript of Oral Argument at 41, Ayestas v. Davis, No. 16-6795 (Oct. 30, 2017).
  24. Brief for the Respondent at 18-28, Ayestas v. Davis, No. 16-6795 (Aug. 1, 2017).
  25. See United States v. French, 556 F.3d 1091, 1093 (10th Cir. 2009); United States v. Stone, 53 F.3d 141, 143 (6th Cir. 1995); Shearin v. United States, 992 F.2d 1195, 1196 (Fed. Cir. 1993); Landano v. Rafferty, 859 F.2d 301, 302 (3rd Cir. 1988); United States v. Rodriguez, 833 F.2d 1536,1537-38 (11th Cir. 1987); United States v. Walton (In re Baker), 693 F.2d 925, 927 (9th Cir. 1982); United States v. Smith, 633 F.2d 739, 742 (7th Cir. 1980). But see United States v. Turner, 584 F.2d 1389 (8th Cir. 1978) (allowing appeal where jurisdictional argument not raised); United States v. Ketchem, 420 F.2d 901 (4th Cir. 1969) (reversing denial of expenses for court appointed defense counsel where jurisdictional argument not raised).
  26. French, 556 F.3d at 1093.
  27. Id.
  28. Id.
  29. Act of Sept. 19, 1950, Pub. L. No. 81-790, 64 Stat. 866, 866 (codified at 11 U.S.C. § 71(c) (2012)).
  30. Act of July 5, 1935, Pub. L. No. 74-449, 49 Stat. 1140, 1140. That judges’ hiring decisions are not made within their judicial capacity is confirmed by the fact that absolute immunity does not apply in those contexts. See Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. 219, 220 (1988).
  31. See, e.g., Matter of Baker, 693 F.2d 925, 927 (9th Cir. 1982).
  32. Hohn v. United States, 524 U.S. 236, 245 (1998) (citing United States v. Ferreira, 54 U.S. (13 How.) 40, 51-52 (1851)). There is no reason to believe this jurisdictional bar could not be removed, but Congress has yet to do so. Congress has provided no general cause of action to appeal administrative decisions made by individuals within the judicial branch—there is no equivalent to § 702 of the Administrative Procedure Act, which only applies to executive agencies. See 5 U.S.C. § 7019(b)(1)(B) (2012) (defining “agency” to exclude “the courts of the United States”); Id. § 702 (providing a general cause of action for review of “agency action”). One caveat, however, derives from Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137, 174-176 (1803). In Marbury, Chief Justice Marshall made clear that the Court cannot exercise “appellate Jurisdiction” under Article III directly from an executive officer. Thus, any attempt to directly review an agency action would need to fall within the Court’s original jurisdiction to be valid. However, the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court cannot be expanded. Id. at 174-176. Thus, the Court can only review an executive agency action by way of review of an appeal from a court. The question of what constitutes a “court” for the purposes of defining the Supreme Court’s appellate jurisdiction is an open question that may be resolved this Term. See Brief for Professor Aditya Bamzai as Amicus Curiae in Support of Neither Party, Dalmazzi v. United States, No. 16-961 (U.S. Nov. 14, 2017). However, it is likely the case that a judge acting in her administrative capacity is not a “court” within the relevant meaning. For this reason, Congress could only provide for Supreme Court review of judicial administrative actions by way of a cause of action that first places that claim in some other court, such as a federal district or circuit court.
  33. Ferreria, 54 U.S. (13 How.) at 46.
  34. Id. at 45.
  35. Hayburn’s Case, 2 U.S. (2 Dall.) 409, 409-10 & n.* (1792).
  36. Franks v. Bowman Transp. Co., 424 U.S. 747, 754-55 (1976) (discussing mootness as deriving from the Article III requirement that there be an adversarial controversy).
  37. Hohn, 524 U.S. at 245-46.
  38. See id.
  39. See United States v. Ferreira, 54 U.S. (13 How.) 40, 47 (1851).
  40. Brief for the Respondent at 22, Ayestas v. Davis, No. 16-6795 (Aug. 1, 2017).
  41. See Ake v. Oklahoma, 470 U.S. 83, 95 (1968).
  42. Brief for the Respondent at 24, Ayestas v. Davis, No. 16-6795 (Aug. 1, 2017) (discussing 18 U.S.C. § 3599(g)(2) (2012)).
  43. See Rojem v. Workman, 655 F.3d 1199, 1202 (10th Cir. 2011).
  44. See Hooper v. Jones, 536 F. App’x 796, 798-99 (10th Cir. 2013).
  45. Transcript of Oral Argument at 43, Ayestas v. Davis, No. 16-6795 (Oct. 30, 2017).
  46. See, e.g., Martel v. Clair, 565 U.S. 648, 652 (2012) (reviewing what standard courts should apply when determining whether appointed counsel should be replaced under § 3599(e)).
  47. Act of June 25, 1948, Pub. L. No. 80-772, § 20, 62 Stat. 683, 862 (codified at 18 U.S.C. (2012)).
  48. USA Patriot Improvement and Reauthorization Act, Pub. L. No. 109-177, § 222, 120 Stat. 192, 232 (2006) (codified at 18 U.S.C. § 3599(f)).
  49. 18 U.S.C. § 3599(e).
  50. 565 U.S. 648, 652 (2012); see also Christeson v. Roper, 135 S. Ct. 891 (2017) (reviewing a district court’s decision made pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3599(e)).
  51. 135 S. Ct. 891 (2017).
  52. Pub. L. No. 100-690, § 7001, 102 Stat. 4181, 4393-94 (1988).
  53. See Sandra Day O’Connor, Foreword: The Changing Role of the Circuit Justice, 17 U. Tol. L. Rev. 521, 523-24 (1985).
  54. U.S. Const. art. III, § 1.
  55. See, e.g., Ellakkany v. Common Pleas Court of Montgomery Cty., 658 F. App’x 25, 28 (3d Cir. 2016) (holding that absolute immunity applies to a decision not to issue a temporary restraining order, since such decisions fall within a judge’s judicial capacity).
  56. Fed. R. Civ. P. 65(b)(1).
  57. See, e.g., Franks v. Bowman Transp. Co., 424 U.S. 747, 754-55 (1976).
  58. Courts regularly utilize “judicial power,” id., in contexts in which only one of the parties to a controversy participate, either because one of the parties are excluded, like in an ex parte proceeding, or because one of the parties fails to appear.

Regulatory Reform in the Trump Era—The First 100 Days

* Roncevert Almond: Partner and Vice-President, The Wicks Group, Washington, D.C., J.D. (with honors) and M.A., Political Science, Duke University.

Marina O’Brien: Associate, The Wicks Group, J.D., Georgetown University.

Andy Orr: Associate, The Wicks Group, J.D., George Washington University.


Within the first 100 days of his administration, President Donald J. Trump initiated a bold regulatory reform agenda intended to downsize the imprint and reduce the influence of the federal government. Through a series of executive orders, supported by guidance from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and his proposed budget to Congress, the President has attempted to change the calculus and methodology underlying the federal regulatory process. To enforce his far-reaching agenda, the President is establishing a new administrative framework that challenges conventions on government oversight and rulemaking within the Executive Branch.

Even as other actions and controversies monopolize public attention, the President’s governing legacy may hinge on the scope and effectiveness of his effort to radically change the federal regulatory system. This Essay reviews this nascent program of administrative regime change. Part I analyzes the foundational tools underlying President Trump’s regulatory reform agenda; Part II explains how the President’s plans to enforce his deregulatory policies within the federal bureaucracy; Part III examines and compares the results of regulatory reform during President Trump’s first 100 days; and Part IV concludes by identifying implications and questions arising from the administration’s plan.

I. Establishing Regulatory Reform: The 2-for-1 Rule

A. Executive Order 13,771

Similar to preceding administrations, on the day of President Trump’s inauguration, the new White House initiated a review of all pending rulemaking at the federal agencies.1 Almost immediately following this “regulatory freeze,” the Trump administration embarked on a novel reform effort aimed at the federal rulemaking process writ large. On January 30, 2017, President Trump issued Executive Order 13,771, which required that “for every one new regulation issued, at least two prior regulations be identified for elimination,” and that the costs of the new regulation be, “prudently managed and controlled through a budgeting process.”2 Under the so-called “2-for-1 Rule,” the incremental costs of all new regulations for Fiscal Year 2017 must be no greater than zero, unless the regulation is required by law or consistent with advice provided in writing by the Director of the OMB.3 Agencies are expected to meet this new requirement by offsetting any incremental costs from new regulations with the supposed savings gained from eliminating two existing regulations.4

EO 13,771 applies to any “regulation” that serves as “an agency statement of general or particular applicability and future effect designed to implement, interpret, or prescribe law or policy or to describe the procedure or practice requirements of an agency.”5 Excluded are regulations with a military, national security, or foreign affairs function, and regulations related to an agency’s organization, management, or personnel.6

The OMB plays an important role under the 2-for-1 Rule. For instance, the Director of the OMB can exempt any category of regulations from the rule.7 Executive Order 13,771 also modifies the requirements for the Annual Regulatory Cost Submissions that agencies must submit to OMB. Beginning in FY 2018 and in each fiscal year thereafter, agencies must identify offsetting regulations for each new regulation that increases incremental costs and provide the best approximation of the total cost savings for each new or repealed regulations.8 Regulations approved by the Director of the OMB will be included in the Unified Regulatory Agenda and, unless otherwise required by law, no regulation will be issued unless it was included on the most recent version of the Unified Regulatory Agenda.9

Executive Order 13,771 also makes the OMB Director responsible for “identify[ing] to agencies a total amount of incremental costs that will be allowed for each agency in issuing new regulations and repealing regulations for the next fiscal year.”10 Any new or repealed regulation that exceeds this cost limit set by OMB will not be allowed, unless required by law or approved in writing by the Director.11

Additionally, the OMB Director is directed to provide federal agencies with guidance on how to measure and estimate the incremental costs of new regulations, determine what constitutes new or offsetting regulations, and how to calculate the savings gained from the elimination of existing regulations.12 Within the OMB, responsibility for issuing guidance on such matters falls to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), a federal office that Congress established in the 1980 Paperwork Reduction Act.13

B. OIRA’s Interim Guidance

Consistent with Executive Order 13,771, OIRA issued its Interim Guidance Implementing Section 2 of the Executive Order of January 30, 2017, Titled “Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs” (the Interim Guidance).14 Through this guidance, OIRA clarified the scope of the 2-for-1 Rule and expanded on methods for its implementation.

1. Defining the Applicability of Executive Order 13,771

Under the Interim Guidance, Executive Order 13,771 only applies to “significant regulatory action,” as defined by Executive Order 12,866,15 and only to those agencies that are required to submit their significant regulatory actions to OIRA for review under Executive Order 12,866.16

Executive Order 12,866, signed by President Bill Clinton, is the primary governing executive order regarding regulatory planning and review.17 Under Executive Order 12,866, significant regulatory actions are defined as those actions that:

(1) have an annual effect on the economy of $100 million or more or adversely affect in a material way the economy, a sector of the economy, productivity, competition, jobs, the environment, public health or safety, or State, local, or tribal governments or communities;

(2) create a serious inconsistency or otherwise interfere with an action taken or planned by another agency;

(3) materially alter the budgetary impact of entitlements, grants, user fees, or loan programs or the rights and obligations of recipients thereof; or

(4) raise novel legal or policy issues arising out of legal mandates, the President’s priorities, or the principles set forth in Executive Order 12,866.18

OIRA’s also notes that new “significant guidance” or “interpretive documents” may also be covered by the 2-for-1 Rule. The Interim Guidance cites the OMB’s 2007 Bulletin for Good Guidance Practices.19 According to the OMB’s 2007 bulletin, the definition of “significant guidance” must have a “substantial impact on regulated entities, the public or other federal agencies,” which is similar to the language used to refer to “significant regulatory action.”20 The Interim Guidance instructs agencies to consult their OIRA desk officer, on a case-by-case basis, concerning whether agency actions constitute “significant guidance,” as may be the case with interpretive documents like letters of interpretation.21

2. Estimating Incremental Cost

OIRA’s Interim Guidance provides instruction on the proper method for agencies to estimate the incremental costs of new regulations and the savings that can be obtained by eliminating regulations. All costs are measured as an “opportunity cost to society,” as defined in OMB Circular A-4.22 Opportunity cost is determined through a “willingness-to-pay” model, which considers what an individual would be willing to pay to forgo to enjoy a particular benefit, or the “willingness-to-accept” model, which considers whether an individual would be willing to accept compensation for not receiving an improvement.23 Pursuant to this calculation, agencies are required to consider market prices, costs of forgone benefits, and any cost savings.

Agencies are further expected to annualize the costs in accordance with OMB Circular A-4, and ensure that the start and end point for the annualization allow for the cost of new regulation to be easily compared to that of the repealed regulation. In calculating cost savings, agencies are expected to consider all cost savings after the effective date of repeal. This would not include sunk costs, for example. Additionally, agencies may not consider future energy cost savings gained from requiring energy efficient technologies as an offset against the compliance costs.

3. Waivers and Implementing Measures

Executive Order 13,771 allows for individual waivers, for example, in the event of emergencies.24 In the Interim Guidance, OIRA noted that the circumstances supporting waivers include emergencies addressing critical health, safety, or financial matters, or other compelling reasons.25 Agencies are directed to facilitate the requests through their respective OIRA desk officer.

OIRA also provided guidance on methods for implementing the 2-for-1 Rule. For instance, agencies can bundle their new regulatory actions and their deregulatory actions in the same package, as long as the agency clearly identifies which provisions contain new regulations and which provisions eliminate old rules, and demonstrates how the bundled rules are logically connected.26 OIRA recommended that agencies identify the regulation to be eliminated and do so no later than by the date the new regulations are issued.

One of the more novel aspects of the 2-for-1 Rule is that cost savings may be transferred both within an agency and from one agency to another.27 According to OIRA, regulatory savings by a component in one agency can be used to offset a regulatory burden by a different component in that same agency. Moreover, if agencies are not able to generate sufficient savings to account for new regulatory actions under Executive Order 13,771, then they must submit a written request to the OMB Director to transfer savings from another agency before they submit a regulatory action for review that does not contain the needed offset. However, if the Director does not concur with this request, the agency must identify adequate offsets absent a waiver.

C. OIRA’s Memorandum

On April 5, 2017, OIRA issued a Memorandum titled Guidance Implementing Executive Order 13,771, Titled “Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs” (the OIRA Memorandum).28 The OIRA Memorandum builds upon the Interim Guidance, particularly in relation to the definitional scope of the 2-for-1 Rule.29

For instance, the OIRA Memorandum more clearly defines the regulatory and deregulatory actions subject to the offsetting regime of Executive Order 13,771. An “EO 13771 regulatory action” means a “significant regulatory action” as defined in Section 3(f) of Executive Order 12,866 that has been finalized and that imposes total costs greater than zero; or a “significant guidance document” reviewed by OIRA under the procedures of Executive Order 12,866 that has been finalized and that imposes total costs greater than zero.”30

In comparison, “EO 13,771 deregulatory action” is defined as an action that has been finalized and has total costs less than zero.31 An Executive Order 13,771 deregulatory action qualifies as both (1) one of the actions used to satisfy the provision to repeal or revise at least two existing regulations for each regulation issued and (2) a cost savings for purposes of the total incremental cost allowance. These deregulatory actions can be used as offsets and involve a wide variety of actions from rulemaking to official interpretations to information collection activities.32

With regard to the category of “significant guidance documents,” these do not include legal advisory opinions, briefs, and other positions taken by agencies in investigations, pre-litigation, and other enforcement proceedings, as well as speeches, editorials, media reviews, press materials, congressional correspondence, grant solicitations, warning letters, and case investigatory letters responding to complaints involving fact-specific determinations.33 Likewise, purely “internal” agency policies pertaining to facility operations and guidance materials directed solely to other federal agencies are not included in the definition.34

However, Executive Order 13,771 does apply to “internal” policies and guidance documents that “materially affect an agency’s interactions with non-federal entities, even if nominally directed only to agency personnel.”35 For example, an internal directive to field staff on how to implement a regulatory requirement (e.g., an agency enforcement manual) could be a “significant guidance document” subject to the 2-for-1 Rule.36 Likewise, modifications to existing guidance and interpretive documents would be considered “significant guidance documents” if they satisfy the definition provided in Executive Order 12,866 and the OMB’s 2007 bulletin on good guidance practices.37

Furthermore, OIRA notes that regulatory activities associated with regulatory cooperation with foreign governments and international bodies are also affected by Executive Order 13,771. Thus, if the regulatory activities involving international harmonization reduce costs to entities or individuals within the United States, or otherwise lower the regulatory costs to the U.S. economy, such activities may qualify as Executive Order 13,771 deregulatory actions. However, international harmonization actions that increase costs to U.S. entities or individuals may need to be offset.

If, by the end of a fiscal year, an agency does not finalize at least twice as many deregulatory actions as regulatory actions issued during the same fiscal year, or it has not met its total incremental cost allowance for that fiscal year, the agency must submit a plan for coming into full compliance with Executive Order 13,771 for the OMB Director’s approval within 30 days of the end of the fiscal year that addresses each of the following: (1) the reasons for, and magnitude of, non-compliance; (2) how and when the agency will come into full compliance; and; (3) other relevant information requested by the Director.38

When considering which federal requirements to repeal or revise, in order to serve as Executive Order 13,771 deregulatory actions, the OIRA Memorandum directs agencies to follow the priorities set forth in Executive Order 13,777 Enforcing the Regulatory Reform Agenda.39 As explained below, Executive Order 13,777 also establishes a new set of positions and administrative oversight bodies within the Executive Branch for enforcing the President’ regulatory reform agenda.

II. Enforcing the Regulatory Reform Agenda: A New Administrative Framework

A. Executive Order 13,777

Through Executive Order 13,777, President Trump has established a new administrative framework to ensure implementation of his regulatory reform agenda within the federal agencies.

First, Executive Order 13,777 creates the new position of “Regulatory Reform Officer” (RRO).40 RROs are empowered to oversee the implementation of regulatory reform initiatives and policies to ensure that agencies carry out regulatory reforms. RROs are specifically authorized to oversee: (1) Executive Order 13,771; (2) Executive Order 12,866; (3) Section 6 of Executive Order 13,563 of January 18, 2011 (Improving Regulation and Regulatory Review), regarding retrospective review; and (4) terminating programs and activities that derive from or implement executive orders, guidance, and interpretations that have been rescinded. Agency heads, except those whose agencies that receive a waiver from the OMB Director, are expected to designate an RRO within sixty days of the Executive Order 13,777’s issuance.

Second, President Trump mandated that agencies establish a new internal watchdog, the “Regulatory Reform Task Force” (RRTF), consisting of the agency’s RRO, the Regulatory Policy Officer (as designated pursuant to Executive Order 12,866), a representative of the agency’s central policy office, and for agencies listed in 31 U.S.C. § 901(b)(1), three additional senior agency officials.41 Executive Order 13,777 empowers the RRTF to evaluate existing regulations and make recommendations to the agency head to identify regulations that need to be repealed, replaced, or modified. The RRTF is also expected to target regulations that eliminate or inhibit jobs, are ineffective or outdated, impose costs that exceed benefits, create inconsistencies or otherwise interfere with regulatory reform initiatives, are inconsistent with the requirements of § 515 of the Treasury and General Government Appropriations Act,42 or are derived from subsequently rescinded executive orders or Presidential directives. Demonstrating the new authority of the RRTF, agency heads are expected to take instruction from the RRTF by prioritizing the elimination of regulations identified by the RRTF.43

B. Executive Order 13,781

To further enforce his regulatory reform agenda, President Trump issued Executive Order 13,781, Comprehensive Plan for Reorganizing the Executive Branch. The purpose of Executive Order 13,781 is to improve the “efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability” of the Executive Branch by ordering the OMB Director to propose a plan to reorganize governmental functions and eliminate unnecessary agencies.44

The OMB Director will create the government reorganization plan based on the submission from each agency head of a proposed plan to reorganize their own agencies to improve efficiency and effectiveness. In turn, the agencies must submit their respective plans with 180 days of the date of Executive Order 13,781. In addition, the public can provide recommendations for government reorganization to the OMB through a mandatory notice and comment period in the Federal Register.

Within 180 days of the closing date for public submissions, the OMB Director must submit his plan to President Trump, which will include plans to reorganize, eliminate, or merge agencies or their functions, and provide the legislative or administrative steps necessary to implement each part of the plan. In developing the plan, the OMB Director must consider factors designed to downsize or even eliminate federal agencies. These factors include: (1) transfer of “all of the functions of any agency” to state or local governments or to “free enterprise” via the private sector; (2) reduction of inter-agency functional and administrative redundancies at the agency, component, and program level; (3) the costs or benefits of the continuing operation of an agency; and (4) the costs of shutting down or merging agencies, components, or programs, including the costs of addressing the equities of affected agency staff.45

C. President Trump’s Budget

In addition to executive orders targeting regulatory reform, President Trump is seeking to reduce the federal government through his proposed budget to Congress, America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again.46 For example, if enacted, President Trump’s budget will impact the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). The White House is asking for a thirteen percent reduction in funding for DOT as a whole.47 More broadly, the President’s budget calls for the complete elimination of nineteen federal agencies. Terminating these agencies will result in about $3 billion in savings, offsetting about six percent of President Trump’s proposed increase of $54 billion in military spending.48

III. Measuring Regulatory Reform in President Trump’s First 100 Days

Following the first 100 days of President Trump’s term, it is possible to measure initial implementation of his regulatory reform agenda. According to our analysis of rulemaking in the Federal Register during this period, only nineteen rules and sixteen proposed rules have referenced Executive Order 13,771 (which includes the 2-for-1 Rule) as part of the regulatory impact analysis.

As Table 1 below indicates, approximately sixty-eight percent of both the rules and proposed rules were issued solely by the U.S. Coast Guard under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The purpose of these rules and proposed rules was to secure water ways for sporting or cultural events (e.g. a water race). Because the U.S. Coast Guard determined that there was not a “significant regulatory action” under Executive Order 12,866, the 2-for-1 Rule was inapplicable.49 Other agencies offered the same justification for some of the remaining rules and proposed rules.50

Even when the regulatory actions were considered to be “significant” (mainly because their impact was determined to be greater than $100 million), there were two other justifications for why the requirements of Executive Order 13,771 were inapplicable. For instance, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers explained that the 2-for-1 Rule did not apply to their rulemaking because the regulatory action involved exempted military and national security functions.51 In contrast, in five other significant regulatory actions, the acting agency determined that the rules and proposed rules do “not impose costs” that trigger the requirements of Executive Order 13,771 due to the “net impact of zero”52 or the “cost savings.”53

Only a single proposed rule even acknowledged that Executive Order 13,771 may apply, stating that the, “implications of this rule’s costs and costs savings will be further considered in the context of our compliance with Executive Order 13,771.”54 In this instance, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) interpreted the rulemaking to involve Medicare spending—a so-called “transfer rule” that is not covered by Executive Order 13,771, according to the OIRA Memorandum.55 Nonetheless, HHS determined that the rulemaking could involve requirements apart from transfers and that those regulatory actions would need to be offset to the extent that they impose more than de minimis costs. Notably, however, within the first 100 days of the Trump administration, no federal agency had actually applied the offset required by the 2-for-1 Rule.


Referral to Executive Order 13,77156





Total Number: 19 16
Agency, Department: 13 or 68.4%
Coast Guard/DHS
11 or 68.75%
Coast Guard/DHS
Justification: Not a significant regulatory action under Executive Order 12,866, thus Executive Order 13,771 is not applicable. 16 13
Justification: Even if significant regulatory action, the rule does not impose costs that trigger requirements of Executive Order 13,771. 2 2
Justification: Military or defense function and, therefore, Executive Order 13,771 is not applicable. 1 0
Potential application: Implications of the rule’s costs and cost savings will be further considered in the context of compliance with Executive Order 13,771. 0 1

On their face, these results suggest that the 2-for-1 Rule has yet to have a large impact on federal rulemaking. Based on our experience and interactions with federal regulators, agencies have reacted cautiously with respect to implementation of Executive Order 13,771. The Trump Administration’s need to issue interim guidance from OMB and then supplemental guidance from OIRA demonstrates a tacit recognition that a transition period is required for interpretation and implementation of the 2-for-1 Rule. To assist agencies, the OMB has even recommended that agencies request ideas from the public on deregulatory actions to pursue under Executive Order 13,771.57 For instance, the DOT has solicited similar public input in identifying existing regulations that are “unnecessary obstacles to transportation infrastructure projects” and acknowledged the related role of Executive Order 13,771.58 On an informal level, we are aware of outreach efforts by Trump’s political appointees at the agencies to identify potential deregulatory actions—to the extent such appointments have been made. In the first 100 days, the Trump Administration lagged far behind its predecessors, particularly Democratic Presidents Obama and Clinton, in terms of nominations and Senate confirmation of key officials responsible for setting agency policies, such as adherence to executive orders.59

In addition, the record in the Federal Register supports the conclusion that agencies have yet to determine a consistent approach for applying Executive Order 13,771. For example, as noted in Table 2, there are variations in agency identifications of rulemaking that involves “significant regulatory action” (generally, an annual effect on the economy of $100 million or more) with respect to Executive Order 13,771 versus Executive Order 12,866. A review of the Federal Register in Trump’s first 100 days indicates that only 383 rules (of the total 682) and 191 proposed rules (of the total 349) reference Executive Order 12,866—suggesting that an agency determination was made as to whether the rulemaking involved “significant regulatory action.” In comparison, the total rulemaking that referenced Executive Order 13,771—nineteen rules and sixteen proposed rules—is less than five percent of the rules and ten percent of the proposed rules that reference Executive Order 12,866. This disparity exists even though Executive Order 13,771 applies the same “significant regulatory action” threshold as set forth in Executive Order 12,866. Put differently, if agencies are invoking Executive Order 12,866, then they should also be considering Executive Order 13,771.

Further evidence of inconsistency in federal agency application of Executive Order 13,771 is found in the different number of rules identified in the Federal Register as being “significant regulatory actions.” Specifically, the Federal Register provides an advanced search filter for “Significant Regulatory Actions” that are “Deemed Significant Under Executive Order 12,866.” Under this advanced search, within the first 100 days of the Trump administration, the Federal Register only identifies seventy-one out of 1,031 total rulemaking actions—rules and proposed rules—as being “Deemed Significant Under Executive Order 12,866.” Moreover, of those seventy-one results, only eleven reference Executive Order 12,866 in comparison to only three references to Executive Order 13,771. There is not a clear explanation as to why agencies would undertake rulemaking deemed a “significant regulatory action” in the Federal Register database without referencing the presidential orders mandating this type of regulatory review—Executive Order 12,866 and Executive Order 13,771.


Continued Disparity in References to Executive Order 12,866 versus Executive Order 13,771

Rules Proposed Rules Rules and Proposed Rules “Deemed Significant

Under Executive Order 12,866”

Rules Referencing E.O. 12,86660 383 191 11
Rules Referencing E.O. 13,77161 19 16 3
Total62 682 349 71

In the end, the small number of references to Executive Order 13,771 within the first 100 days does not mean that President Trump’s regulatory reform agenda has not materially changed regulatory activity within the federal bureaucracy. The “regulatory freeze” at the start of the Trump-era resulted in the delay of dozens of regulations by one count.63 There have also been numerous federal regulations that have been revoked or delayed or subject to suspended enforcement.64 When compared to President Obama’s first 100 days, President Trump’s administration has engaged in twenty-five percent less rulemaking, as noted in Table 3 below. At least by this measure, covering a brief 100-day timeframe, President Trump has made progress toward reducing the government’s regulatory activity.

Comparing Presidents Obama to Trump
# of Rules Issued 900 732 19%
# of Proposed Rules Issued 473 370 22%
Rulemaking Total 1,373 1,102 20%

More generally, Executive Order 13,771 may be understood as presenting a set of deregulatory principles based on nine elements: (1) content; (2) objective; (3) scope; (4) cost measurement; (5) exceptions; (6) concentration of authority; (7) interagency transfer; (8) agency oversight; and (9) enforcement.68

We can use these elements to compare Trump’s attempts to substantially reform the federal regulatory process against those of prior presidents, such as President Ronald Reagan’s Executive Order 1229169 and President Clinton’s Executive Order 12,866.70 In relation to content and objective, the 2-for-1 Rule of Executive Order 13,771 provides a new formula for federal rulemaking. This prescription may also be interpreted as furthering Reagan’s offsetting principle established under Executive Order 12291 where regulatory action will not be undertaken unless the regulation’s potential benefits to society outweigh the potential costs to society.71 In turn, Clinton’s Executive Order 12,866 provided a more permissive cost-benefit and cost-effectiveness approach where an agency’s reasoned determination can support the conclusion that the benefits of the intended regulation justify its costs.72

In terms of scope, Executive Order 13,771 carries forward the “significant regulatory action” definition of Executive Order 12,866 with a threshold of “$100 million or more” for applicability.73 Executive Order 12,866 built upon the “major rule” definition of Executive Order 12291, which applied to regulations with “an annual effect on the economy of $100 million or more.”74 Executive Order 13,771 also retains the standard regulatory impact analysis set forth in Executive Order 12,866 for measuring costs.75 Similarly, Executive Order 12291, Executive Order 12,866, and Executive Order 13,771 all excluded rules issued by independent regulatory agencies even as these agencies—like the Federal Trade Commission, Securities and Exchange Commission, and Federal Communications Commission—have a significant impact on the U.S. economy.76 Executive Order 13,771, like Executive Order 12,866 and Executive Order 12291, exempt rules that pertain to a military or foreign affairs function, or that involve agency organization, management, or personnel matters.77

A key characteristic of Executive Order 13,771 is the centralization of rulemaking authority at the cost of the agencies’ discretion. Through Executive Order 12291, President Reagan concentrated authority in OIRA for overseeing rulemaking over “major” regulations (an annual effect on the economy of $100 million or more);78 President Clinton, via Executive Order 12,866, reversed this course and reaffirmed the “primacy” of agencies in the regulatory decision-making process;79 and, now, through Executive Order 13,771, the pendulum has swung again as President Trump has concentrated on enhancing regulatory power with OIRA.80 In addition, the President has delegated new power to the Director of the OMB to determine each agency’s total amount of incremental costs associated with rulemaking for each fiscal year and approve interagency transfers of savings in the event that an agency cannot identify the needed offset.81

President Trump has established a new oversight and enforcement framework. Executive Order 13,777 establishes the position of RRO and the RRTF, the individual and task force embedded at the agencies to enforce Executive Order 13,771.82 Notably, this agency oversight structure differs from President Reagan’s “Presidential Task Force on Regulatory Relief” under Executive Order 12291, which played more of an oversight role with respect to the Director of the OMB. In the event of non-compliance with the off-setting rule of Executive Order 13,771, offending agencies must submit to the Director of the OMB, within thirty days of the end of the fiscal year, a plan detailing how the agency will come into full compliance with Executive Order 13,771.83

Elements of Executive Order 13,771
Content For each regulatory action there must be two deregulatory actions
Objective The incremental costs associated with regulatory actions must be fully offset by the savings of deregulatory action
Scope Regulatory actions must be “significant” ($100M or more) but extend beyond rulemaking to include regulatory activities such as agency guidance material and interpretive documents
Cost Measurement Standard regulatory impact analysis (under Executive Order 12,866 and OMB Circular A-4)
Exceptions Independent regulatory agencies; statutory and judicial mandates; military, national security, and foreign policy functions; related to agency organization, management, or personnel; emergencies; de minimis actions; otherwise approved exemption (e.g., transfer rules)
Concentration of Authority Interpretation, approval and total incremental cost allowance determinations centralized with OMB and OIRA
Interagency Transfer Ability to transfer deregulatory action credits, subject to approval by Director of OMB
Agency Oversight Agency Regulatory Reform Task Force and Regulatory Reform Officer
Enforcement Within 30 days of the end of the fiscal year, submit compliance plan to Director of OMB for approval

Implications and Questions

Although further analysis is required to determine the long-term impact and effectiveness of President Trump’s regulatory reform agenda, we can identify key implications and questions arising from the President’s plan to reform the administrative state.84

First, President Trump’s actions—executive orders, implementing measures and proposed budget—demonstrate a clear policy to radically reduce the size and impact of the federal government. The 2-for-1 Rule provides a broad, but basic baseline for controlling regulatory actions by agencies. The Interim Guidance and the OIRA Memorandum create wide latitude and ample means for the White House to strike down proposed regulatory actions that are inconsistent with the policy priorities of President Trump. For instance, under Executive Order 13,771, any new or repealed regulation that exceeds the agency’s “total incremental cost allowance” set by OMB will not be allowed, unless required by law or approved in writing by the Director of the OMB.85 Through this measure, the administration is in effect an attempt to institutionalize a “regulatory budget” for agencies as a means of controlling the size of the administrative state, an approach that has been promoted by reform advocates in Washington and adopted by other countries.86

In addition, the fact that agency heads will need to provide reorganization plans justifying their respective agency’s continued existence may also dictate what if any agency rulemaking priorities move forward. Indeed, a number of recently appointed agency heads have been vocally hostile to the agencies they now control.87 The President’s budget calls for wholesale elimination of certain programs.88 Aside from the chilling effect on new regulatory actions, the culmination of these factors could create tension between longstanding career civil servants and new political appointees. In other words, beyond a quantitative analysis, we must also discern how measures like the 2-for-1 Rule and Trump’s new political controls impact the role, authority, and mission of federal agencies, which have traditionally been afforded a degree of autonomy and deference based on their technical expertise, meritocratic norms, and professional standards. As the President’s regulatory reform agenda unfurls, we may see internal agency appeals to Congress, particular relevant committees of jurisdiction, for support. One key question to be answered is whether President Trump has the political capital to effect the bold change he seeks.

Second, in order to achieve his goal, it is obvious that President Trump intends to consolidate regulatory and rulemaking power within the Executive Branch. The OMB and OIRA sit near the top of his program to reform regulations and reduce the footprint of the federal government. The OMB Director has broad discretion to set the incremental costs allowed for each agency under the 2-for-1 Rule. The Director is also charged with overseeing a new governmental deregulatory transfer scheme. Agencies with mandates or functions that are in disfavor with the President for policy or political reasons may be subject to stricter control by the OMB, particularly in relation to any reorganization efforts or new regulatory activity.

Within OMB, OIRA will also play a prominent role in weighing the impact of almost all new regulatory actions. For instance, OIRA desk offices, assigned to each agency, will review, on a case-by-case basis, any significant guidance or interpretive documents as well as proposed deregulatory actions that save costs but do not outright eliminate a regulation.89 OIRA has discretion over measuring the timing or annualization of costs, whether costs are duplicated in other regulatory actions, and whether certain costs are even quantifiable. Agencies have a clear incentive to establish a line of communication with their respective OIRA desk officer in order to avoid confusion or confrontation on potential regulatory actions subject to President Trump’s reform agenda.

President Trump nominated Neomi Rao, a conservative lawyer and law professor to head OIRA.90 Professor Rao’s views regarding the power of the presidency and independent agencies have been controversial. She has articulated the belief that federal agencies should have less independence and be subject to stricter White House control.91 Given her strong political views and the President’s stated deregulatory goals, Professor Rao may alter OIRA’s traditional role of serving as an analytic counterweight to agencies and regulatory arbiter during the regulatory process.

At the agencies, the new RROs will serve as deregulatory watchdogs, working in tandem with OIRA and OMB to control any new regulatory actions.92 The RRTF provides an additional layer and forum to ensure that the agencies are actually following President Trump’s regulatory reform agenda.93 Whether the RRO and task force serve to enhance or inhibit the authority of the agency remains to be seen and may vary on a case-by-case basis depending on the policy priorities of the agency leadership. The new RROs and RRTFs spreading across the federal government could have a chilling effect on agency actions, from rulemaking to interpretations to enforcement. This may be the intention of increased administration over the administrative state.

Recent press reports suggest that political appointees embedded at cabinet agencies as policy advisors are there to ensure agency officials are maintaining loyalty to President Trump.94 These aides reportedly will answer to the Office of Cabinet Affairs at the White House, not to their respective department secretaries.95 The centralization of regulatory authority within the Executive Branch will likely create uncertainty in terms of what discretion is left at the agency-level for carrying out typical regulatory and administrative functions. The effect of this ambiguity will extend beyond governmental turf battles to impact industry, which relies on a predictable framework for government regulation and oversight. A fundamental question arising from this reform process is how industry will respond to what could become an extremely static or unpredictably fluid regulatory environment.

Third, a review of rulemaking in the first 100 days indicates an extremely limited and inconsistent approach to implementation of Executive Order 13,771 and its deregulatory principles. In this period, no federal agency actually implemented the 2-for-1 Rule by eliminating two existing federal regulations in order to initiate a new significant regulatory action, generally a rule with an annual effect on the economy of $100 million or more.96 Moreover, the rulemaking within the first 100 days of the new White House demonstrates significant variations on how agencies are applying Executive Order 12,866 as compared to Executive Order 13,771 even though these two presidential orders are interrelated and share the same threshold for application. The fact that agencies are more likely to invoke the Clinton-era Executive Order 12,866 as part of the regulatory impact analysis, without necessarily referencing Trump’s Executive Order 13,771, may evidence a cautious approach by the federal bureaucracy to implementing Executive Order 13,771. Indeed, within the first 100 days, the Trump administration has incrementally rolled out interpretative documents from OMB and OIRA concerning Executive Order 13,771, implicitly demonstrating that a transition period for clarification is required.97 Even at the stroke of a pen, presidential orders cannot simply change the course of the administrative state.

Fourth, President Trump’s executive orders should be understood within a tradition of presidential initiatives that have attempted to reform the federal regulatory process. Executive Order 13,771 may be analyzed according to deregulatory principles that derive from predecessor Republican administrations and respond to changes made under Democratic ones. These presidential regulatory review procedures follow an established structure and terminology, even if they diverge within this framework. What is unique about President Trump’s addition to this tradition is the use of a strict offset rulemaking formula, the layering of new political and bureaucratic controls, and the employment of ungarnished rhetoric, all of which seek to disempower the agencies’ regulatory authority.

It should be noted that President Trump’s regulatory reform agenda has not gone without legal challenge. On February 8, 2017, Public Citizen, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Communications Workers of America, filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming that Executive Order 13,771 and the accompanying Interim Guidance implementing the 2-for-1 Rule are unconstitutional because these actions direct federal agencies to engage in unlawful actions that will harm Americans, including plaintiff’s members, in violation of the Take Care Clause.98

According to plaintiffs’ claim, Executive Order 13,771 would make federal agencies violate governing statutes like the Administrative Procedure Act, which establishes the process and methodology for agencies’ regulatory action.99 By forcing federal agencies to focus on costs rather than benefits, these groups argue that Executive Order 13,771 harms the public by forcing agencies to repeal beneficial regulations and arbitrarily preventing new regulations from being passed. As a result, the lawsuit contends that the President’s executive order endangers public health, safety, and the environment and compels federal agencies to violate current governing statutes by ignoring the non-financial public benefits of current and potential regulations. The federal government filed a motion to dismiss citing the lack of standing and ripeness in the case.100 However, following plaintiffs’ amendment of its complaint to address the standing allegations, the court subsequently dismissed the government’s request as moot.101 At this moment, there are two pending motions before the court: the government’s motion to dismiss plaintiffs’ first amended complaint,102 which the plaintiff opposed, and plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment.103 After a motion hearing on August 10, 2017, the court took these matters under advisement before issuing a ruling.104

The final outcome of this lawsuit, like the consequence of President Trump’s agenda, remains to be seen. What we can clearly conclude at this time is that the President is attempting to deliver on his promise to change the status quo in Washington. Within the first 100 days, the new administration has taken a number of concrete steps towards achieving fundamental regulatory reform. Whether President Trump is able to deliver on his ambitious government reorganization plan will determine the weight of his White House legacy.

  1. Office of Mgmt. & Budget, Exec. Office of the President, Regulatory Freeze Pending Review, 82 Fed. Reg. 8346 (Jan. 20, 2017) [hereinafter Priebus Memo]; see also Trump Administration Delayed Rules, N.Y. Times (Mar. 3, 2017),‌3480502-Trump-Administration-Delayed-Rules.html [] (providing copies of similar memoranda from the administrations of President Barack Obama and President George W. Bush).
  2. Exec. Order No. 13,771, 82 Fed. Reg. 9339 (Jan. 30, 2017).
  3. Id.
  4. ”Agencies” do not include “independent regulatory agencies,” as defined in 44 U.S.C. § 3502(5) (2012), such as the National Transportation Safety Board.
  5. 82 Fed. Reg. 9339.
  6. Id.
  7. Id.
  8. Id.
  9. Id.
  10. Id.
  11. Id.
  12. Id.
  13. See Pub. L. No. 96-511, 94 Stat. 2812 (Dec. 11, 1980) (codified as amended in scattered sections of 44 U.S.C.).
  14. Office of Mgmt. & Budget, Interim Guidance Implementing Section 2 of the Executive Order of January 30, 2017, Titled “Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs,” Exec. Off. President (Feb. 2, 2017),‌briefing-room/‌presidential-actions/related-omb-material/EO_iterim_guidance_reducing_regulations_‌controlling_regulatory_costs.pdf [] [hereinafter OIRA Interim Guidance].
  15. 3 C.F.R. 638 (1993).
  16. OIRA Interim Guidance, supra note 14.
  17. See Anthony Vitarelli, Happiness Metrics in Federal Rulemaking, 27 Yale J. on Reg. 115, 120 (2010) (noting that Executive Order 12,866 is “the primary vehicle of regulatory approval through the current day”).
  18. 3 C.F.R. 638.
  19. OIRA Interim Guidance, supra note 14.
  20. Office of Mgmt. & Budget, Exec Office of the President, OMB Bull. No. 07-02, Agency Good Guidance Practices (2017).
  21. OIRA Interim Guidance, supra note 14.
  22. OMB Circular A-4, Regulatory Analysis, 68 Fed. Reg. 58,366 (Oct. 9, 2003).
  23. Id.
  24. Exec. Order No. 13,771, 82 Fed. Reg. 9339 (Jan. 30, 2017).
  25. See OIRA Interim Guidance, supra note 14.
  26. Id.
  27. Id.
  28. Office of Mgmt. & Budget, Exec. Office of the President, Guidance Implementing Executive Order 13371, Titled “Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs” (Apr. 5, 2017), [] [hereinafter OIRA Memorandum].
  29. Id.
  30. Id.
  31. Id.
  32. According to OIRA, Executive Order 13,771 deregulatory actions are not limited to those defined as significant under Executive Order 12,866 or OMB’s 2007 bulletin on good guidance practices. Id.
  33. Id.
  34. Id.
  35. Id.
  36. Id.
  37. Id.
  38. Id.
  39. Exec. Order 13,777, 82 Fed. Reg. 12,285 (Feb. 24, 2017).
  40. Id.
  41. Id.
  42. See Pub. L. No. 106-554, 114 Stat. 2763 (Dec. 21, 2000).
  43. Id.
  44. Exec. Order 13,781, 82 Fed. Reg. 13,959 (Mar. 13, 2017).
  45. Id.
  46. Office of Mgmt. & Budget, Exec. Office of the President, America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again, Fiscal Year 2018 (2017).
  47. Id.
  48. Aaron Blake, The 19 Agencies that Trump’s Budget Would Kill, Explained, Wash. Post: The Fix (Mar. 16, 2017), [].
  49. See, e.g., Ohio River MM 598-602.7, Louisville, KY, 82 Fed. Reg. 18,393 (Apr. 19, 2017) (to be codified at 33 C.F.R. pt. 100).
  50. Adjustment of Civil Monetary Penalties for Inflation, 82 Fed. Reg. 18,559 (Apr. 20, 2017) (to be codified at 34 C.F.R. pt. 36); Clarification of When Products Made or Derived from Tobacco are Regulated as Drugs, Devices, or Combination Products, 82 Fed. Reg. 14,319 (Mar. 20, 2017) (to be codified at 21 C.F.R. pts. 1100, 201, 801).
  51. Restricted Areas, 82 Fed. Reg. 15,637 (Mar. 27, 2017) (to be codified at 33 C.F.R. pt. 334).
  52. Market Stabilization, 82 Fed. Reg. 18,346 (Apr. 18, 2017) (to be codified at 45 C.F.R. pts. 147, 155, 156); Telephone interview with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (Apr. 27, 2017).
  53. See, e.g., Class Exemption for Principal Transactions in Certain Assets Between Investment Advice Fiduciaries and Employee Benefit Plans and IRAs (Prohibited Transaction Exemption 2016-02), 82 Fed. Reg. 16,902 (April 10, 2017) (to be codified at 29 C.F.R. pt. 2510).
  54. Agreement Termination Notices, 82 Fed. Reg. 19,796, 20,228 (Apr. 28, 2017).
  55. In general, federal spending regulatory actions that cause only income transfers between taxpayers and program beneficiaries (e.g., regulations associated with Pell grants and Medicare spending) are considered “transfer rules” and are not covered by Executive Order 13,771. See OIRA Memorandum, supra note 28.
  56. These search results were obtained on July 7, 2017 by using the advanced search function on the Federal Register website. The search term was “13,771”, and the results were filtered for a publication date range starting on January 30, 2017 and ending on April 29, 2017.
  57. OIRA Memorandum, supra note 28.
  58. Notice of Review of Policy, Guidance, and Regulation, 82 Fed. Reg. 26,734 (June 8, 2017).
  59. Joe Davidson, Trump Drags Feet on Political Appointees, Lags Behind Predecessors, Wash. Post: PowerPost (Apr. 26, 2017),‌powerpost/wp/2017/04/26/trump-drags-feet-on-political-appointees-and-lags-far-behind-predecessors/?‌utm_‌term=.‌8734490952e8 [].
  60. These results are based on the use of the advanced search function on the Federal Register website, The search term was “12,866”, and the results were filtered for a publication date range starting on January 30, 2017 and ending on April 29, 2017.  Please note that the front end of the search range begins on the publication date of Executive Order 13,771, ten days following the first day of the Trump administration.
  61. These search results are based on the use of the advanced search function on the Federal Register website, The search term was “13,771”, and the results were filtered for a publication date range starting on January 30, 2017 and ending on April 29, 2017.  Please note that the front end of the search range begins on the publication date of Executive Order 13,771, ten days following the first day of the Trump administration.
  62. These search results are based on the use of the advanced search function on the Federal Register website, The search field was left blank and the results were filtered for a publication date range starting on January 30, 2017 and ending on April 29, 2017.  Please note that the front end of the search range begins on the publication date of Executive Order 13,771, ten days following the first day of the Trump administration.
  63. Eric Lipton & Binyamin Applebaum, Leashes Come Off Wall Street, Gun Sellers, Polluters and More, N.Y. Times (Mar. 5, 2017), [].
  64. Id.
  65. These search results are based on the use of the advanced search function on the Federal Register website, The search field was left blank and the results were filtered for a publication date range starting on January 20, 2009 and ending on April 29, 2009.
  66. These search results are based on the use of the advanced search function on the Federal Register website, The search field was left blank and the results were filtered for a publication date range starting on January 20, 2017 and ending on April 29, 2017.
  67. The “Percent Difference” is calculated as the percent decrease in regulatory action between the Obama and Trump administrations rounded to the nearest whole number.
  68. These elements are borrowed from Professor Nicholas R. Parillo.
  69. Exec. Order No. 12,291, 46 Fed. Reg. 13,193 (Feb. 17, 1981).
  70. Exec. Order No. 12,866, 3 C.F.R. 638 (1993).
  71. Exec. Order No. 12,291, at § 2(b).
  72. Exec. Order No. 12,866, at § 1(b)(6).
  73. Id. § 3(f).
  74. Exec. Order No. 12,291 § 1(b).
  75. Exec. Order No. 12,866 § 6(a)(C)(ii).
  76. Exec. Order No. 12,291 § 1(d); Exec. Order 12,866 § 3(b); Exec. Order 13,771 § 2(a), 82 Fed. Reg. 12,285 (Feb. 24, 2017).
  77. Exec. Order No. 13,771, § 4(a).
  78. Exec. Order No. 12,291 § 1(b).
  79. Exec. Order No. 12,866.
  80. Exec. Order No. 13,771 § 3.
  81. Exec. Order No. 13,771 § 2(d).
  82. Exec. Order No. 13,777.
  83. OIRA Memorandum, supra note 28.
  84. See Roncevert Almond et al., Administering the Administrative State: Regulatory Reform in the Trump Era, J. Hazmat Transp., Mar./Apr. 2017.
  85. Exec. Order 13,771 § 3(d).
  86. C. Jarrett Dieterle, Lessons from the Godfather of Regulatory Budgeting, Hill (Feb. 23, 2017, 11:00 AM), []; Jim Tizzo, The Coming of the Regulatory Budget, Reg. Rev. (Jan. 8, 2016), [].
  87. Meg Jacobs, Trump is Appointing People Who Hate the Agencies They Will Lead, CNN, (Dec. 12, 2016, 10:40 AM), [].
  88. Niv Elis, Here Are the 66 Programs Eliminated in Trump’s Budget, Hill (May 23, 2017, 2:03 PM), [].
  89. See OIRA Interim Guidance, supra note 14.
  90. Steve Mufson, Trump’s Pick for Rules Czar Would Hand More Power to Trump, Wash. Post (Apr. 20, 2017), [].
  91. Id.
  92. Exec. Order 13,777 § 2.
  93. Exec. Order 13,777 § 3.
  94. Lisa Rein & Juliet Eilperin, White House Installs Political Aides at Cabinet Agencies To Be Trump’s Eyes and Ears, Wash. Post (Mar. 19, 2017), [].
  95. Id.
  96. The authors found no rules or proposed rules containing references to Executive Order 12,866 or Executive Order 13,771, published on the Federal Register during Trump’s first 100 days, which indicated an agency was implementing the 2-for 1 rule by elimination of two existing federal regulations. These search results are based on the use of the advanced search function on the Federal Register website, The search terms were “12,866” and “13,771”, and the results were filtered for a publication date range starting on January 20, 2009 and ending on April 29, 2009.
  97. See OIRA Memorandum, supra note 28; OIRA Interim Guidance, supra note 14.
  98. Complaint, Pub. Citizen, Inc. v. Trump, No. 1:17-cv-00253 (D.D.C. Feb. 8, 2017).
  99. See Administrative Procedure Act, Pub. L. No. 79-404, 60 Stat. 237 (June 11, 1946) (codified as amended in scattered sections of 5 U.S.C.).
  100. Memorandum of Points & Authorities in Support of Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss, Pub. Citizen, Inc., No. 1:17-cv-00253.
  101. Order, Pub. Citizen, Inc., No. 1:17-cv-00253.
  102. Motion to Dismiss First Amended Complaint, Pub. Citizen, Inc., No. 1:17-cv-00253.
  103. Motion for Summary Judgement, Pub. Citizen, Inc., No. 1:17-cv-00253.
  104. Motion Hearing Minute Entry, Pub. Citizen, Inc., No. 1:17-cv-00253.

Why the Bank Examination Privilege Doesn’t Work as Intended

* Mr. Epstein is a partner in the New York Office of Dorsey & Whitney LLP. He is the lead author of a new legal treatise, The Bank Examination Privilege, which was published in January by the American Bar Association. He also is a lecturer in law at Columbia Law School.


Bank examinations are one of the key tools used by federal regulators to supervise the banking and financial services industry. A bank examination is a dialogue between a regulator and a bank about the bank’s policies and practices. Confidentiality is crucial to making this dialogue work. As such, publicizing examination records could inhibit candid communication between banks and regulators, and, in some cases, harm the subject institution.1 But preserving secrecy is difficult when a bank is involved in a lawsuit against a nongovernmental party. In many cases, a bank’s adversary will attempt to obtain the bank’s examination records in order to use them as evidence against the bank. Surprisingly, however, no federal statute or regulation fully addresses this problem.

To plug this gap, federal courts developed a common law rule: the bank examination privilege. The modern incarnation of the privilege originated in a series of cases in the 1990s. Each of these cases involved examinations conducted by federal regulators, including the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), the Federal Reserve Board, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).2 Courts wanted to give these regulators, and banks, a reasonable assurance of confidentiality while acknowledging litigants’ legitimate need for examination records. The privilege strikes a balance: it shields examiners’ opinions, recommendations and deliberations, unless a party has a sufficiently strong need, known as good cause, to obtain that information.3

Today, the bank examination privilege is recognized in every federal circuit.4 Within the landscape of federal law, the privilege is the primary rule for resolving privilege disputes related to bank examinations. But rifts are growing between how one would expect the privilege to work and how the privilege actually works in practice.

I. The Nature of the Problem

The problem revolves around the interplay between the bank examination privilege and state privilege law. State privilege law does not uniformly mirror the bank examination privilege. Instead, the state law on this issue reflects a spectrum of approaches. Some state laws track the federal approach, while others depart from it significantly.

For example, the rule in the state of Washington functions similarly to the bank examination privilege. A Washington statute provides that bank examination reports are generally, but not always, off-limits: “The court may permit discovery and introduction of only those portions of the report which are relevant and otherwise unobtainable by the requesting party.”5 The question of whether information is “relevant” and “otherwise unobtainable” is essentially a variation on the good cause exception to the bank examination privilege.

But some other states do not treat bank examination records as privileged, or have not adopted a clear rule on point. For instance, the Supreme Court of Michigan has held that a Michigan law “requiring information obtained by examiners to be kept secret is not intended to prevent testimony of State officers in the courts of the State under oath and upon due process.”6 At the opposite end of the spectrum, some states go even further than the bank examination privilege by strictly shielding examination records. Notably, Delaware has codified a “&$#91;f]inancial institution supervisory privilege,” which provides, in relevant part: “All confidential supervisory information shall be the property of the [State Banking] Commissioner and shall be privileged and protected from disclosure to any other person and shall not be discoverable or admissible into evidence in any civil action.”7

Thus, state privilege law in this area can differ on a state-to-state basis, and often clashes with the federal approach. Based on this author’s review of all published judicial decisions regarding the bank examination privilege, there do not appear to by any published judicial decisions finding that bank examination privilege preempts these state laws.8 Thus, in each state, the bank examination privilege coexists with the state law on protecting examination records. As a result, when the two differ, a choice of law question can arise. That is, in order to determine whether bank examination records are privileged, a court first has to decide whether to apply federal or state privilege law.

This choice of law question is the crux of a major problem. One would expect that, in determining the applicable law, courts would simply distinguish between federal and state regulators. As previously mentioned, the privilege is a federal rule. It sprung from cases involving bank examinations conducted by federal regulators, such as the OCC. As such, one would expect courts to look to the privilege whenever a litigant seeks to probe a federal bank examination, but would not expect the privilege to govern bank examinations conducted by state agencies. One would expect that those examinations would be subject to the privilege law of the state that conducted the examination.

To date, however, the federal courts that have grappled with this choice of law question have arrived at a very different solution. Instead of focusing on the nature of the regulator, federal courts have focused on the nature of the lawsuit. Specifically, federal courts have held that the relevant distinction is between federal-question cases (i.e., cases that involve federal law claims or defenses) and diversity-jurisdiction cases (i.e., cases that involve state law claims and defenses). In federal-question cases, the bank examination privilege governs, even if the records being sought belong to a state regulator.9 However, in diversity-jurisdiction cases, federal courts have held that it is appropriate to look to state privilege law, even if the examination records being sought belong to a federal regulator.10

Generally, in diversity-jurisdiction cases, that entails looking to the privilege law of the state in which the federal court is situated. For example, a Michigan federal court would apply Michigan state privilege law. If the examination at issue was conducted or otherwise centered in a different state, such as Washington, the Michigan federal court would follow Michigan’s choice of law rules in deciding which state’s privilege law to apply.11

II. Why It Matters

This nuance of the bank examination privilege has significant, real-world impact. As a practical matter, federal regulators and banks cannot rely on the privilege as a predictable or dependable rule, eroding confidence in the confidentiality of bank examinations. Despite the existence of the privilege, federal examination records are often at the mercy of the policies of individual states, some of which favor disclosure. In addition, in states that strictly protect examination records, the privilege can be a source of frustration for state regulators and financial institutions. In these states, when an institution is involved in a federal-question case, the privilege can potentially replace the state’s strict confidentiality rule, thereby lowering the bar for obtaining information about state-level examinations.

Two recent decisions help to illustrate this problem. SBAV v. Porter Bancorp was a diversity-jurisdiction case litigated in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky.12 During discovery, the plaintiff sought records of bank examinations conducted by the FDIC and Federal Reserve. The Court held that because the case involved diversity jurisdiction, the bank examination privilege was inapplicable, notwithstanding the fact that the FDIC and Federal Reserve are federal regulators. Instead, the Court looked to the privilege law of the state, Kentucky, in which the Court was situated. The Court found that Kentucky does not consider bank examination records to be privileged.13 Therefore, the Court concluded, the FDIC and Federal Reserve’s bank examination records were unprotected.14

By contrast, United States ex. rel. Fisher v. Ocwen Loan Servicing was a federal-question False Claims Act (“FCA”) case litigated in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas.15 During discovery, the plaintiff sought records of bank examinations conducted by the West Virginia Department of Financial Institutions (“WVDFI”). The Court found that, under West Virginia law, the documents would be non-discoverable. As the Court noted: “Clearly, these communications originated with an understanding that they would not be disclosed under state law.”16 But, the Court held, “there is no reason for WVDFI to assume that these documents would be protected in an FCA action based on a federal question, especially given the broad range of permissible discovery.”17 Thus, the Court applied the bank examination privilege instead of West Virginia privilege law. The Court further held that the records were discoverable based on the good cause exception to the bank examination privilege.

In the SBAV case, the bank examination privilege failed to protect examination records belonging to federal regulators. In the Fisher case, the bank examination privilege governed, but it only served to undermine state privilege law. In both cases, the outcome arguably was a far cry from the original intent of the bank examination privilege, which was to protect sensitive, confidential federal examination records.

Why does the privilege work this way? To answer that question, it is helpful to bear in mind five points about the nature and history of the privilege.

III. Five Points about the Privilege

1. The Impact of Federal Rule of Evidence 501

The primary reason the bank examination privilege does not work as expected is because although the privilege is important to banks and federal regulators, Congress has not codified it as a statute. Thus, it is considered to be a common law rule. The fact that it is uncodified is not just a technicality: under Federal Rule of Evidence 501, the common law nature of the privilege changes the way that the privilege functions.

Federal Rule of Evidence 501 governs how federal courts choose between federal privilege law and state privilege law. Rule 501 begins by distinguishing between, on the one hand, federal common law privileges, and, on the other hand, federal privileges that stem from the U.S. Constitution, federal statutory law or rules prescribed by the U.S. Supreme Court.18 Federal common law privileges apply in federal-question cases. But federal common law privileges do not apply in diversity-jurisdiction cases. In diversity-jurisdiction cases, state privilege law supersedes federal common law privileges.19

However, when a privilege stems from the U.S. Constitution, federal statutory law or U.S. Supreme Court rules, the equation changes. Rule 501 does not bar federal courts from applying such privileges in diversity-jurisdiction cases.20

In the field of banking law, an example of a federal statutory privilege is the privilege that shields Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs). The SAR privilege is derived from the Federal Bank Secrecy Act (BSA).21 When a financial institution submits a SAR, the BSA prohibits the institution from notifying “any person involved in the transaction that the transaction has been reported.”22 Federal regulations broaden that prohibition: Federal regulations categorically provide that “[a] SAR, and any information that would reveal the existence of a SAR, are confidential,” and in general “shall not be disclosed.”23

These rules create “an unqualified discovery and evidentiary privilege” with respect to SARs.24 Because the SAR privilege is grounded in a statute, Rule 501 does not restrict it to federal-question cases. Federal courts apply the SAR privilege in diversity-jurisdiction cases as well.25 State courts similarly defer to the SAR privilege.26

By contrast, there is no such statute underpinning the bank examination privilege. If such a statute existed, the bank examination privilege and SAR privilege likely would work in a similar fashion. But because there is no such statute, courts channel the bank examination privilege through Rule 501. Rule 501 shuts the privilege down in diversity-jurisdiction cases, even when federal examination records are at issue. Conversely, Rule 501 activates the privilege in federal-question cases, even when state examination reports are at issue.

2. Relationship to 12 U.S.C. § 1828(x)

There are occasional misconceptions that a federal statutory provision, 12 U.S.C. § 1828(x), codifies the bank examination privilege. As explained below, Section 1828(x) does not codify the privilege. Thus, courts treat the bank examination privilege as a common law rule. That is why Federal Rule of Evidence 501 skews the effects of the privilege.

Section 1828(x) is entitled “Privileges not affected by disclosure to banking agency or supervisor.” Section 1828(x) and the bank examination privilege share a similar purpose: to build a barrier between bank examinations and private litigation. But Section 1828(x) and the privilege address different aspects of this issue.

Section 1828(x) allows banks to share privileged information with bank examiners without waiving any applicable privileges.27 For example, perhaps a bank receives privileged legal advice from outside counsel in the form of an email. During a subsequent bank examination, perhaps the bank shares the email with the examiner. Under Section 1828(x), sharing the email with the examiner does not waive the attorney-client privilege. In a future lawsuit, if the bank’s adversary asks for the email, the bank can withhold it.

The difference between the bank examination privilege and Section 1828(x) is that the former is a privilege, while the latter is an anti-waiver rule. The bank examination privilege attaches a privilege to the opinions, recommendations and deliberations of bank examiners. Section 1828(x) cannot do that. It can protect an already-privileged document. But the privilege itself has to come from somewhere outside Section 1828(x).

In short, Section 1828(x) and the privilege are separate and distinct rules. They serve a similar policy goal, but they do so in different ways.

3. The Role of Regulatory Policy

Many federal regulators take the position that bank examination records are privileged. Some of these regulators have even issued formal regulations to that effect.28 These regulatory policies play a vital role when the bank examination privilege is litigated. Only regulators have the standing to assert the privilege. As such, a bank cannot defend the privilege without a regulator’s support.29 If federal regulators did not consider examination records to be privileged, the privilege likely would be a dead letter.

But these regulations are not the legal authority for the bank examination privilege. That is, the privilege is not an application of these regulations. The privilege is a common-law rule. Nor do these regulations carry the force of a privilege.30

Why? No federal statute empowers federal financial regulators to declare bank examination records to be privileged in federal litigation.31 In that sense, these regulations are unlike the SAR regulation. The SAR regulation is a valid privilege because it is grounded in a statute, but these regulations are not. Without an anchor in a statute, they do not transform the bank examination privilege into a statutory or regulatory privilege. As a result, they do not exempt the privilege from Rule 501.

4. Proposed Federal Rule of Evidence 509

Congress has considered several legislative proposals to shield bank examination reports from private litigants. However, Congress has not enacted any of these proposals. As a result, the bank examination privilege remains a common law rule.

One notable attempt to codify the privilege came about during the development of the Federal Rules of Evidence in the early 1970s. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court submitted draft rules of evidence to Congress. Among other things, these rules would have codified nine specific evidentiary privileges.32 These rules also would have prohibited courts from recognizing any other privileges under federal common law.33

One of these privilege rules, Proposed Federal Rule of Evidence 509, was entitled “Secrets of State and Other Official Information.”34 Proposed Rule 509 would have given the government “a privilege to refuse to give evidence and to prevent any person from giving evidence upon a showing of reasonable likelihood of danger that the evidence will disclose a secret of state or official information as defined in this rule.”35

Under Proposed Rule 509, the definition of “Official Information” would have included governmental information that is unavailable to the public under the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.36 FOIA is the federal statute that allows journalists and other members of the public to seek records from federal agencies outside of the litigation context. FOIA contains a variety of exemptions. Each exemption allows agencies to withhold a particular category of sensitive information when responding to FOIA requests.

One of these exemptions, FOIA Exemption 8, specifically concerns federal bank examinations. FOIA Exemption 8 shields information “contained in or related to examination, operating, or condition reports prepared by, on behalf of, or for the use of an agency responsible for the regulation or supervision of financial institutions.”37

In effect, Proposed Rule 509 would have imported FOIA Exemption 8 into private civil litigation. By doing so, Proposed Rule 509 would have indirectly codified a bank examination privilege. In fact, in two ways, this rule would have been stricter than the common law privilege that exists today. First, Exemption 8 does not contain a good cause exception. Second, Exemption 8 is not limited to bank examiners’ opinions, recommendations and deliberations. It encompasses the entire bank examination process.

Proposed Rule 509, by incorporating FOIA Exemption 8, likely would have also reshaped how the privilege applies to federal and state examinations. In particular, it likely would have protected federal examination records in both diversity-jurisdiction and federal-question cases. At the same time, in federal-question cases, it likely would not have undercut state laws that strictly shield examination records.

However, ultimately, Congress chose not to codify any specific evidentiary privileges in the Federal Rules of Evidence. As such, Congress did not pass Proposed Rule 509 into law. The rejection of these privilege rules was not a disapproval of any common law privilege.38 Rather, Congress did not want to “freeze the law governing the privileges of witnesses in federal trials at a particular point in our history[.]”39 Congress intended courts to continue developing the law of privilege “in the light of reason and experience.”40

5. The Bank Examination Report Protection Act

In the late 1990s, Congress considered another proposal to legislatively protect bank examination reports: a bill entitled the Bank Examination Report Protection Act (BERPA).41 BERPA would have added a “Bank Supervisory Privilege” to federal statutory law. In particular, BERPA would have provided: “All confidential supervisory information shall be the property of the Federal banking agency that created or requested the information and shall be privileged from disclosure to any other person.”42 BERPA would have protected state examinations to the same extent in federal litigation.43

Procedurally, BERPA also would have prohibited litigants from requesting bank examination reports from banks. Instead, BERPA would have required litigants to seek such documents from the regulator that conducted the examination. If the regulator declined to produce the requested documents, BERPA would have allowed the litigant to ask the court to override the regulator’s decision. However, in most cases, the court’s role likely would have been limited to simply confirming that the documents being withheld were, in fact, confidential supervisory information, and therefore privileged.44

BERPA had support from federal45 and state46 regulators. Like Proposed Federal Rule of Evidence 509, BERPA would have fixed two of the anomalies in the common-law bank examination privilege. First, BERPA would have extended the privilege to diversity-jurisdiction cases. Second, by strengthening the privilege, BERPA would have prevented it from diluting state privilege laws. However, for reasons that are unclear from available legislative history, the bill stalled, and was never made into law.

IV. Potential Solutions

As noted earlier, the main purpose of the bank examination privilege is to create clear expectations regarding the confidentiality of federal bank examinations. However, currently, the privilege does not fully achieve that goal. With respect to federal bank examinations, the privilege is not a reliable rule. With respect to state bank examinations, it interferes with state laws that give bank examinations broader and more rigorous protection.

There are two ways to solve this problem. The first would involve legislative change. Congress could pass a bank examination privilege statute. It would have to apply consistently across all types of civil cases, whenever litigants seek federal bank examination records. It also would have to specify the role, if any, of state privilege law when litigants seek information about examinations conducted by state regulators.

The second solution would be to rethink how the existing, common-law bank examination privilege should work. In general, federal common law rules do not supersede state law. But federal common law rules can supersede state law “where there are uniquely federal interests at stake.”47 For example, “[o]ne such exception applies to litigation that implicates the nation’s foreign relations.”48 In such cases, “[b]ecause our foreign relations could be impaired by the application of state laws, which do not necessarily reflect national interests, federal law applies . . . even where the court has diversity jurisdiction.”49

Arguably, the bank examination privilege implicates another uniquely federal interest: specifically, the interest in effective federal regulation of the banking industry. Like foreign relations, this uniquely federal interest could be impaired if “left to divergent and perhaps parochial state interpretations.”50 Therefore, when litigants seek to uncover confidential federal examination records, the privilege arguably should supersede state law, even if a literal reading of Rule 501 might suggest that state privilege law should apply.

In addition, in federal-question cases, when litigants seek state examination records, federal courts could give greater weight to state statutes that strictly protect those records. Technically, federal privilege law governs in federal-question cases. But federal privilege law has the flexibility to import state statutory privileges. To determine whether federal privilege law should import a state statutory privilege, a federal court will “balanc[e] the policies behind the privilege against the policies favoring disclosure.”51 The court will explore:

(1) whether the fact that the . . . [state] would recognize the privilege itself creates good reason for respecting the privilege in federal court, regardless of our independent judgment of its intrinsic desirability; and (2) whether the privilege is intrinsically meritorious in our independent judgment.52

Thus far, only one decision—Fisher, which was touched upon earlier—has applied this test to bank examinations. In Fisher, the Eastern District of Texas concluded that this standard for the application of state privilege law was not met. The court reached this conclusion because “[t]here is a strong federal interest in FCA cases for seeking the truth, and in this case, federal law plays a predominant role in the litigation.”53 However, this precedent has not yet been analyzed by other federal district courts, or by any federal appellate court.

In sum, there are several potential pathways for fixing the bank examination privilege. For the time being, however, banks should be aware that the privilege does not offer ironclad protection, or even a predictable level of protection, with respect to bank examination records. As a result, during a bank examination, it can be difficult for a bank to know with certainty if the examination results will be revealed in future litigation.

Currently, the best way for a bank to reduce this uncertainty is to be mindful of both federal and state privilege law. During a bank examination, a bank should consider the federal rule: the bank examination privilege. But a bank also should consider the relevant state laws that may apply in a future case. In particular, a bank should consider the privilege laws of the states in which the bank is subject to regulatory oversight, as well as the privilege laws of the states in which the bank tends to face civil litigation. By creating a blended picture of these federal and state rules, a bank can assess the risk that its confidential communications with federal and state bank examiners may be exploited by an adversary in a lawsuit.

  1. In re Subpoena Served Upon Comptroller of the Currency, 967 F.2d 630, 633-34 (D.C. Cir. 1992).
  2. In re Bankers Trust Co., 61 F.3d 465 (6th Cir. 1995); In re Subpoena Served Upon Comptroller of the Currency, 967 F.2d 630; Principe v. Crossland Sav., FSB, 149 F.R.D. 444 (E.D.N.Y. 1993).
  3. In re Subpoena Served Upon Comptroller of the Currency, 967 F.2d 630, 634.
  4. Martinez v. Rocky Mountain Bank, 540 Fed. Appx. 846, 854 (10th Cir. 2013); In re Bankers Trust Co., 61 F.3d at 471-2; Rockwood Bank v. Gaia, 170 F.3d 833, 839 n.4 (8th Cir. 1999); In re Subpoena Served Upon Comptroller of the Currency, 967 F.2d at 633-35; Redland Soccer Club, Inc. v. Dep’t of Army of U.S., 55 F.3d 827, 853 n.18 (3d Cir. 1995); Overby v. U.S. Fidelity & Guar. Co., 224 F.2d 158, 163 (5th Cir. 1955); FDIC v. Jones, No. 2:13–cv–00168, 2015 WL 4275961, at *1 (D. Nev. Jul. 14, 2015); Gradeless v. Am. Mut. Share Ins. Corp., No. 1:10-CV-00086, 2011 WL 221895, at *6 (S.D. Ind., Jan. 19, 2011); In re JPMorgan Chase Mortg. Modification Litig., No. 11-MD-02290, 2012 WL 5947757, at *2 (D. Mass. Nov. 27, 2012); Raffa v. Wachovia Corp., 242 F. Supp.2d 1223, 1225 (M.D. Fla. 2002); Fed. Hous. Fin. Agency v. JPMorgan Chase & Co., 978 F. Supp.2d, 267, 273 (S.D.N.Y. 2013); Marriott Emps.’ Fed. Credit Union v. Nat’l Credit Union Admin., No. CIV.A. 96-478-A, 1996 WL 33497625, at *6 (E.D. Va. Dec. 24, 1996).
  5. See, e.g., Wash. Rev. Code § 32.04.220 (2016).
  6. In re Culhane’s Estate, 269 Mich. 68 (1934) (discussing Michigan state law).
  7. See, e.g., Del. Code Ann. tit. 5, § 145 (2017).
  8. U.S. Const. art. VI, § 2.
  9. Fisher v. Ocwen Loan Servicing, LLC, No. 4:12-CV-543, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 73759 (E.D. Tex. Jun. 7, 2015) (applying the privilege to examination records belonging to the New York State Department of Financial Services in a False Claims Act case); Rouson ex rel. Estate of Rouson v. Eicoff, No. 04-CV-2734, 2006 WL 2927161 (E.D.N.Y. Oct. 11, 2006) (applying the privilege to examination records belonging to the New York State Banking Department in a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations case).
  10. See Mich. First Credit Union v. Cumis Ins. Soc’y, No. 05-CV-74423, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 17582 (E.D. Mich. Mar. 14, 2017) (applying Michigan privilege law to Michigan Office of Financial and Insurance Services examination records in diversity-jurisdiction case); SBAV LP v. Porter Bancorp, Inc., No. 3:13-CV-00710-TBR, 2015 WL 1471020 (E.D. Ky. Mar. 31, 2015) (applying Kentucky privilege law to FDIC and Federal Reserve examination records in diversity-jurisdiction case), vacated as moot, 3:13-CV-00710, 2015 WL 8004502 (W.D. Ky. Dec. 1, 2015); In re Powell, 227 B.R. 61 (Bankr. D. Vt. 1998) (applying Vermont privilege law to FDIC examination records in diversity-jurisdiction case).
  11. Klaxon Co. v. Stentor Elec. Mfg. Co., 313 U.S. 487, 496-97 (“Subject only to review by this Court on any federal question that may arise, Delaware is free to determine whether a given matter is to be governed by the law of the forum or some other law.”).
  12. SBAV LP, 2015 WL 1471020, at *1.
  13. Id. at *5.
  14. The FDIC and Federal Reserve subsequently moved for reconsideration of this decision. Shortly thereafter, the case was settled. Thus, the Court did not decide the motion for reconsideration.
  15. No. 4:12-CV-543, 2015 WL 3942900, at *2 (E.D. Tex. June 26, 2015).
  16. Id. at *5.
  17. Id.
  18. See Fed. R. Evid. 501.
  19. Id.
  20. See 23 Charles Alan Wright & Kenneth W. Graham, Federal Practice and Procedure § 5436 (1980); see also Pierce Cty. v. Guillen, 537 U.S. 129, 147-48 (2003) (holding that Congress had the authority under the Commerce Clause to pass a statute restricting the discovery and admissibility of evidence in state and federal court).
  21. 31 U.S.C. § 5318(g)(2) (2012).
  22. Id.
  23. 12 C.F.R. § 21.11(k) (2017).
  24. Whitney Nat’l Bank v. Karam, 306 F. Supp.2d 678, 682 (S.D. Tex. 2004).
  25. See, e.g., Lee v. Bankers Trust Co., 166 F.3d 540, 543-45 (2d Cir. 1999) (applying SAR privilege in diversity-jurisdiction case).
  26. See Union Bank v. Super. Ct., 29 Cal. Rptr. 3d 894 (2005) (applying SAR privilege).
  27. 12 U.S.C. § 1828(x) (2012).
  28. See, e.g., 12 C.F.R. § 4.36(b) (2016) (“It is the OCC’s policy regarding non-public OCC information that such information is confidential and privileged. Accordingly, the OCC will not normally disclose this information to third parties.”).
  29. Merchants Bank v. Vescio, 205 B.R. 37, 42 (D. Vt. 1997).
  30. See, e.g., In re Bankers Trust Co., 61 F.3d 465, 470 (6th Cir. 1995.
  31. Id.
  32. Jaffe v. Redmond, 518 U.S. 1, 8 n.7 (1996).
  33. See Fed. R. Evid. 501 (unenacted),
  34. See Fed. R. Evid. 509 (unenacted),
  35. Id.
  36. Id.
  37. 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(8) (2012).
  38. See S. Rep. No. 93-1277, at 7059 (1974) (noting that “the action of Congress should not be understood as disapproving any recognition of a psychiatrist-patient, or husband-wife, or any other of the enumerated privileges contained in the Supreme Court rules.”).
  39. Jaffee v. Redmond, 518 U.S. 1, 9 (1996).
  40. See S. Rep. No. 93-1227.
  41. See H.R. 174, 106th Cong. (1999).
  42. Id. at § 45(b)(1)(A).
  43. Id. at § 45(c).
  44. Id. at § 45(e).
  45. See Regulatory Burden Relief, Hearing Before the Subcomm. on Fin. Insts. & Consumer Credit of the S. Comm. on Banking and Fin. Servs., 105th Cong. 158 (1998) (statement of Julie L. Williams, Acting Comptroller of the Currency).
  46. See Press Release, Conference of State Bank Supervisors, State Bank Regulators Back Burden Relief (Jul. 16, 1998),
  47. Ungaro-Benages v. Dresdner Bank AG, 379 F.3d 1227, 1232 (11th Cir. 2004).
  48. Id.
  49. Id. at 1232-33.
  50. Banco Nacional De Cuba v. Sabbatino, 376 U.S. 398, 425 (1964).
  51. Am. Civil Liberties Union v. Finch, 638 F.2d 1336, 1343 (5th Cir. Unit A Mar. 1981).
  52. Id.
  53. Id. at 4.

Constitutional Avoidance and Presidential Power

* Associate, Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. The views expressed in this Essay are my own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm or its clients.


Recent developments have brought renewed attention to statutes designed to constrain and discipline the President. The federal anti-nepotism statute, the federal conflict of interest statute, and the Federal Advisory Committee Act all appear set to endure unusual stress in the coming years. Troublingly, these statutes have already been given limited constructions that weaken their power to restrain the President. Under the constitutional avoidance canon, courts construe statutes so as to avoid constitutional questions. Citing the avoidance canon and the President’s (sometimes merely arguable) constitutional prerogatives, courts have limited the scope of statutes meant to discipline the presidency. The application of constitutional avoidance in this context is uniquely troubling. The President is an active participant in the legislative process, and can use his veto power to protect his prerogatives for himself. As a result, judicial avoidance can greatly extend presidential power in a way that is difficult for Congress to reverse. The President’s unique powers also make the application of constitutional avoidance particularly problematic in this context.

Recent developments have brought renewed attention to statutes designed to constrain and discipline the President. The federal anti-nepotism statute, the federal conflict of interest statute, and the Federal Advisory Committee Act all appear set to endure unusual stress in the coming years. Troublingly, these statutes have already been given limited constructions that weaken their power to restrain the President. Under the constitutional avoidance canon, courts construe statutes so as to avoid constitutional questions. Citing the avoidance canon and the President’s (sometimes merely arguable) constitutional prerogatives, courts have limited the scope of statutes meant to discipline the presidency. The application of constitutional avoidance in this context is uniquely troubling. The President is an active participant in the legislative process, and can use his veto power to protect his prerogatives for himself. As a result, judicial avoidance can greatly extend presidential power in a way that is difficult for Congress to reverse. The President’s unique powers also make the application of constitutional avoidance particularly problematic in this context.

I. Constitutional Avoidance

News reports have suggested that various norms will be under unusual strain in the coming years. For example, while the text of the federal anti-nepotism statute,1 seems to prevent the President from appointing close relatives to any civilian role, the President’s son in law and daughter were recently appointed to White House positions.2

But even when statutory text cuts against such arrangements, courts seem willing to distort such texts to expand presidential discretion. For example, in Public Citizen v. U.S. Department of Justice3 the Supreme Court gave a limited interpretation to the Federal Advisory Committee Act (“FACA”). The FACA was enacted by Congress to bring order to the patchwork of committees, boards, and commissions created to advise executive branch officials.4 Where it applies, it imposes strict procedural requirements, including various disclosures.5 In Public Citizen, the Court considered whether FACA applied to executive consultations with the American Bar Association regarding judicial nominations.

The Supreme Court adopted a narrow reading of FACA that excluded the American Bar Association’s advice. While various considerations supported the decision, the Court was ultimately persuaded by the constitutional avoidance canon: “When the validity of an act of the Congress is drawn in question, and even if a serious doubt of constitutionality is raised, it is a cardinal principle that this Court will first ascertain whether a construction of the statute is fairly possible by which the question may be avoided.”6 Acknowledging the lower court’s concern that the statute “infringed unduly on the President’s Article II power to nominate federal judges and violated the doctrine of separation of powers,”7 the Supreme Court adopted a narrow FACA interpretation that avoided the constitutional question by excluding the consultations.8

Similarly, in Ass’n of American Physicians and Surgeons v. Clinton, the District of Columbia Circuit held that the FACA did not apply to a presidential task force on health care, a group chaired by then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.9 The court was moved by constitutional concerns, stating that “Article II not only gives the President the ability to consult with his advisers confidentially, but also, as a corollary, it gives him the flexibility to organize his advisers and seek advice from them as he wishes.”10 Instead of deciding whether this principle would make it unconstitutional for Congress to regulate the task force, the Court adopted a limited reading of the statute that excluded the task force.11

II. Presidential Involvement in the Legislative Process

The constitutional avoidance canon is well entrenched, though it has been heavily criticized.12 But the canon is particularly problematic in this context, given the President’s involvement in the legislative process. The President’s veto power over legislation allows him to defend his constitutional prerogatives for himself, and means that the constitutional avoidance canon can have an unusually distortive effect in this context.13

To illustrate, imagine that the extent of the President’s power is mapped on a single line.14 The point “P” refers to the President’s preferred level of power. The closer one gets to “P,” the more satisfied the President will be; the further away, the less satisfied he will be. Similarly, “C” refers to Congress’s preferred level of presidential power, and “Cv” captures the preferences of the member of Congress whose vote will decide whether a presidential veto is sustained or overridden.15 Suppose that Congress passes a statute designed to change the situation from the status quo (“S”) to Congress’s preferred outcome (“C”):


The statute would be vulnerable to a veto. If the president vetoed the bill, the member of Congress whose vote will decide whether the veto is sustained will support the president—“S” is closer to “Cv” than “C” is, so the member would prefer the status quo to the bill.

Acting strategically, Congress might adopt a less aggressive measure, designed to bring about an intended outcome (“I”):16


If the President attempted to veto this legislation, his veto would be overridden: “I” is closer to “Cv” than “S,” meaning that the member of Congress whose vote will decide whether the presidential veto is sustained would prefer that the legislation remain intact.

This example demonstrates that, in the context of presidential power, the veto serves functions normally filled by the constitutional avoidance canon. It serves to resist intrusions on the relevant constitutional value, forcing Congress to back away from its preferred outcome “C” to a more moderate outcome “I,” and it demands an unusual degree of agreement within Congress before a more intrusive measure can be adopted.17 the burden of overcoming legislative inertia to those opposing the Court’s understanding of public values”); Trevor W. Morrison, Constitutional Avoidance in the Executive Branch, 106 Colum. L. Rev. 1189, 1212 (2006) (describing normative justifications for the avoidance canon as advanced by Professors Ernest Young and William Eskridge); Ernest A. Young, Constitutional Avoidance, Resistance Norms, and the Preservation of Judicial Review, 78 Tex. L. Rev. 1549, 1552 (2000) (arguing that the rule enforces constitutional values by making it “harder—but still not impossible—for Congress to write statutes that intrude into areas of constitutional sensitivity”).] And this conclusion flows from the President’s formal powers alone. The President also has informal tools for shaping legislation, which amplify the effect.18 effective control into branches of government other than his own and he often may win, as a political leader, what he cannot command under the Constitution.”).]

The avoidance canon amplifies the effect even further. Suppose that a court, uncomfortable with the constitutional questions raised by the statute, adopts a judicial interpretation more favorable to the President (“J”):


Congress might seek to undo the interpretation with a new statute: 4

But this new statute would be vulnerable to a presidential veto.19 Since “J” is closer to “Cv” than “I,” the member of Congress whose vote will decide whether the presidential veto is sustained would back the President.

In sum, the judicial interpretation has the effect of making it impossible for Congress to achieve its desired outcome of “I.”20 Importantly, if the courts insist on this outcome because of “constitutional avoidance” instead of an actual violation of the Constitution, it is entirely possible that “I” — the outcome that the courts have prevented Congress from achieving — is a constitutional outcome that is within Congress’s legitimate power.

III. Unique Concerns with Presidential Power

Using the avoidance canon to give the President flexibility poses other problems. First, it emboldens the executive branch in potentially dangerous ways. The executive often interprets statutes, without any opportunity for judicial review.21 In these contexts, the executive can adopt a self-serving understanding of potential constitutional issues, and use that understanding to reshape statutes as it pleases without judicial discipline.22 Recent history suggests that this is not a purely theoretical concern.23 In an age when serious scholars remark that “the legally constrained executive is now a historical curiosity,”24 there is little need to further embolden the executive.

Second, the avoidance canon muddies the issues. The limits of presidential power cannot be identified in isolation — they emerge from the relationship between the President and Congress. Per the tripartite scheme articulated in Justice Jackson’s concurring opinion in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, the strength of the President’s authority depends on Congress’s position: “[w]hen the President acts pursuant to an express or implied authorization of Congress, his authority is at its maximum,” when he “acts in the absence of either a congressional grant or denial of authority” his authority is in a “zone of twilight,” and when he “takes measures incompatible with the expressed or implied will of Congress, his power is at its lowest ebb.”25 Avoidance blurs the categories: it treats presidential acts incompatible with statutory text as if they were consistent with a statute reinterpreted to avoid conflict.

Third, the canon distorts the balance of power between the branches. Institutionally, Congress must speak in generalities through universally applicable laws, while the President is able to make targeted decisions.26 That is particularly true in the context of statutes like FACA, which is intended to address extemporaneous groups instead of agencies established by statute. Congress cannot anticipate every group that the executive may be inspired to convene at some later time. By requiring Congress to speak with particularity, the constitutional avoidance canon places the burden of prediction on Congress, when it is often more reasonable to insist that the President anticipate problems and request an accommodation from Congress. Congress has proven willing to entertain such requests.27

Finally, presidential power often conflicts with other constitutional values, which Congress seeks to enforce through statutory law. When Congress adopted statutes prohibiting torture and limiting surveillance, it was defending values that find support in the First, Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Eight Amendments to the Constitution.28 Similarly, ethics statutes defend anti-corruption values that find support in the Emoluments Clauses.29 When avoidance is used to narrow these statutes, their underlying constitutional values are diminished in favor of the somewhat unclear30 constitutional provision vesting the “executive power” in the President.31

IV. Conclusion

The constitutional avoidance canon creates special problems when it is used to defend presidential prerogatives. In that context, its role is already filled by the presidential veto, and the presidential veto amplifies its distortive effect. The doctrine also interacts dangerously with the unique powers of the presidency. As statutes constraining the President are placed under stress, both courts and executive actors should hesitate to weaken them by deploying the canon of constitutional avoidance.

  1. 5 U.S.C. § 3110
  2. See, e.g., Jackie Northam & Marilyn Geewax, Ivanka Trump’s Move to the White House Raises Questions About Ethics, NPR (Mar. 21, 2017, 4:58 PM),; Steve Holland & Emily Stephenson, Trump’s Son-in-Law Kushner To Become Senior White House Adviser, Reuters (Jan 10, 2017), The Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel blessed Kushner’s appointment in a memorandum alluding to avoidance principles. See Application of the Anti-Nepotism Statute to a Presidential Appointment in the White House Office, 41 Op. O.L.C. 1, 13 (2017).
  3. 491 U.S. 440 (1989).
  4. Id. at 445-46.
  5. Id. at 446.
  6. Id. at 465-66 (quoting Crowell v. Benson, 285 U.S. 22, 62 (1932)).
  7. Id. at 466.
  8. Id. at 467.
  9. 997 F.2d 898 (D.C. Cir. 1993).
  10. Id. at 909.
  11. Id. at 911. The court also briefly commented on the anti-nepotism statute. See id. at 905.
  12. See Caleb Nelson, Avoiding Constitutional Questions Versus Avoiding Unconstitutionality, 128 Harv. L. Rev. F. 331, 331 (2015) (“[C]ritics include the most eminent circuit judge of the last generation, two of the most eminent circuit judges of the present generation, and a host of thoughtful scholars”).
  13. These issues do not apply when the canon is used to protect judicial instead of presidential prerogatives. See, e.g., Immigration & Naturalization Serv. v. St. Cyr, 533 U.S. 289, 300-01 (2001) (avoiding the constitutional issues that would be raised if Congress stripped courts of jurisdiction). Unlike the President, courts cannot affect statutory text. Avoidance in that context can also be an expression of judicial humility. Indeed, the Supreme Court’s greatest assertion of judicial power was based on the opposite approach – construing a statute so as to raise constitutional issues. See Akhil Reed Amar, Marbury, Section 13, and the Original Jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, 56 U. Chi. L. Rev. 443, 456 (1989) (arguing that the Court adopted a questionable statutory interpretation in Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137 (1803)).
  14. Figures like this one are used to capture legislative dynamics in Robert D. Cooter, The Strategic Constitution 215 (1999).
  15. In the event of a presidential veto, Congress could override by a two-thirds vote in both houses. U.S. Const. Art. I, § 7. As a result, the person who would decide whether a veto is sustained or overridden would have preferences somewhere between those of the President (“P”) and a simple majority of Congress (“C”).
  16. As a possible example, the War Powers Resolution survived President Nixon’s veto, but incorporated compromises that actually expanded presidential power in significant ways. See Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Imperial Presidency 301-07 (3d ed. 2004).
  17. See, e.g., The Constitutional Separation of Powers Between the President and Cong., 20 Op. O.L.C. 124, 178 (1996) (stating that rule is intended in part to require unusual degree of agreement in Congress); Philip P. Frickey, Getting from Joe to Gene (McCarthy): The Avoidance Canon, Legal Process Theory, and Narrowing Statutory Interpretation in the Early Warren Court, 93 Cal. L. Rev. 397, 401 (2005) (noting that avoidance can “shift[
  18. See Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U.S. 579, 654 (1952) (Jackson, J., concurring) (“Party loyalties and interests, sometimes more binding than law, extend [the President’s
  19. See Neal Kumar Katyal & Thomas P. Schmidt, Active Avoidance: The Modern Supreme Court and Legal Change, 128 Harv. L. Rev. 2109, 2119-22 (2015); Morrison, supra note 16 at 1234.
  20. Applying the avoidance doctrine in this context can actually create more distortion than striking down the entire statute as a violation of the constitution. If the statute were struck down, the status quo “S” would be restored. There would thus be a broader range of legislation that would survive a presidential veto, since the member of Congress whose vote would decide whether a veto is overridden dislikes “S” more than she dislikes “J.” Congress would thus have a freer hand to legislate to the limits of its constitutional authority. While that limit would be to the right of “I,” it would be at or to the left of “J.”
  21. Morrison, supra note 17, at 1196-97.
  22. For this reason, some have urged that the executive branch should not apply the constitutional avoidance canon where presidential power is concerned. See H. Jefferson Powell, The Executive and the Avoidance Canon, 81 Ind. L.J. 1313, 1315 (2006). But see Morrison, supra note 16, at 1229-32 (urging that the executive use of the avoidance canon to weaken the statutory prohibition on torture was flawed on other grounds). But as shown above, the canon is problematic in the presidential power context even when courts apply it.
  23. See Katyal & Schmidt, supra note 19, at 2118 n.33 (listing recent aggressive executive interpretations of statutes).
  24. Eric A. Posner & Adrian Vermeule, The Executive Unbound 4 (2010).
  25. 343 U.S. 579, 635-37 (1952) (Jackson, J., concurring).
  26. See Aneil Kovvali, Power Games, 112 Mich. L. Rev. First Impressions 73, 75 (2014).
  27. See Josh Gerstein, Trump Owes Ethics Exemption to George H.W. Bush, Politico (Nov. 13, 2016, 5:06 AM), (noting that Congress carved out an exception to the federal conflict of interest statute in response to executive request). Indeed, the executive has sometimes underestimated Congress’s willingness to cooperate. See Jack Goldsmith, The Terror Presidency 138-40, 207-08 (2009) (noting that Congress readily provided requested statutory authorities after courts had limited presidential power, but limiting decisions might have been prevented if the executive had simply requested authorities in advance).
  28. Constitutional avoidance was cited to diminish such statutes, despite their underpinnings. For a succinct treatment, see Trevor W. Morrison, The Canon of Constitutional Avoidance and Executive Branch Legal Interpretation in the War on Terror, 1 Advance 79, 85-94 (2007). Such application of constitutional avoidance is contrary to one of its strongest normative justifications — its effect of placing the burden of overcoming legislative inertia on the powerful when they seek changes that would harm the powerless. See Frickey, supra note 17, at 401; Einer Elhauge, Preference-Eliciting Statutory Default Rules, 102 Colum. L. Rev. 2162, 2210 (2002).
  29. U.S. Const. art. I, § 9, cl. 8; id. art. II, § 1, cl. 7.
  30. See generally John F. Manning, Separation of Powers as Ordinary Interpretation, 124 Harv. L. Rev. 1939 (2011) (arguing that the concept of “separation of powers” does not have the precision often claimed for it).
  31. Indeed, any application of the constitutional avoidance canon to defend presidential power suffers from this problem, since it privileges the constitutional provisions that empower the President over provisions that empower Congress. This competition between constitutional principles suggests another drawback to application of the canon in the structural context. In other contexts, constitutional avoidance can help delay a constitutional decision as norms evolve. See Frickey, supra note 17, at 402-03. Norms around individual rights evolve rapidly. Compare Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003) (invalidating sodomy laws); with Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1986) (upholding sodomy laws); compare W. Va. State Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943) (finding a constitutional right not to salute flag or recite pledge of allegiance); with Minersville School Dist. v. Gobitis, 310 U.S. 586 (1940) (holding that there is no such right). But there is no clear trend in structural norms that would routinely justify delay. See Schlesinger, supra note 16, at xxiv (describing cycles of expansion and contraction of executive power). Avoidance would only have value in a perceived emergency, where delay could prevent rash actions from being enshrined in constitutional law.

Give Gorsuch a 21st Century Litmus Test

* Mark Grabowski is a lawyer and associate professor of communications at Adelphi University in Long Island, where he teaches Internet law. He also is a nationally syndicated columnist for the Washington Examiner. Grabowski won the 2015 James Madison Prize for Outstanding Research in First Amendment Studies. For more information, visit


The United States Senate began confirmation hearings on March 20 to vet Neil Gorsuch, who was nominated to succeed the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Lawmakers are expected to apply litmus tests, probing him on issues such as abortion. They should also delve into his views on technology. As Wired’s political reporter Issie Lapowsky noted, “[w]hile liberals [focus] on such contentious issues as women’s reproductive rights and environmental protections, Gorsuch will also face cases that demand a solid command of the complex issues digital technology raises, from copyright and privacy to intellectual property rights and data storage.”1 Although Gorsuch has a decade of experience serving as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, he lacks an extensive record on tech-related cases and his decisions have been mixed, which should raise concerns about how he might decide such cases as a Supreme Court Justice. For example, Gorsuch is widely regarded as a strong supporter of free speech, including online speech, but he has not been as reliable an advocate for digital privacy. His support of network neutrality is far from certain. If confirmed, Gorsuch will likely rule on cases involving all of these issues and more. “The Supreme Court already has a list of digital civil liberties issues to consider in the near future, and that list is likely to grow,” predicted Kate Tummarello of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights advocacy group. “If confirmed . . . Gorsuch . . . will be in a position to make crucial decisions affecting our basic rights to privacy, free expression, and innovation.”2 Indeed, he may be the deciding vote on important tech cases. During Scalia’s term, for example, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the Child Online Protection Act violated the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment.3 “As we have seen with critical 5-4 decisions applying constitutional doctrine to changes in technology over the years . . . each and every Justice on the bench matters” – wrote Lisa Hayes, general counsel for the Center for Democracy & Technology, an internet rights group – “[w]e must take the time to thoroughly vet Judge Gorsuch and ensure we preserve an independent judiciary.”4

As it is, the High Court has “difficulty in handling the intersection of the [Constitution] with technology”5 and is often mocked for being “[h]opelessly behind the times . . . out of touch . . . techno-fogeys.”6 For example, many of the Justices do not even use email.7 “The Justices are not necessarily the most technologically sophisticated people,” Justice Elena Kagan admitted.8 Without a tech savvy new Justice who appreciates how the average American uses computers, smart phones and social media, the Court risks taking a step backwards. That is because the new Justice’s predecessor had been the Court’s “standard-bearer” when it came to technology law.9 Despite his typically conservative views on social issues, Scalia was “shockingly forward-looking” on technology issues.10 In fact, he was considered a “hero”11 by tech and legal experts, who cite his “pro-technology” decisions on cases providing First Amendment rights for video games, privacy protections for smart phones, and regulations for network neutrality.12 Given that the Court will increasingly be called upon to make important judgments that relate to technology, experts say Scalia’s successor should demonstrate a genuine desire to keep up with the latest developments and provide guidance on how the Constitution should apply to the legal issues they raise—just as the late Justice did. Although President Donald Trump said he wants a Justice who is “‘very much in the mold of Justice Scalia’”13 and many court observers have dubbed Gorsuch “Scalia 2.0,”14 that may not be the case when it comes to technology law. An analysis of Scalia’s and Gorsuch’s decisions related to the First Amendment, Fourth Amendment and network neutrality indicate that the two jurists may be more different than similar. This should raise questions at the confirmation hearing by Democrat and Republican lawmakers alike.

I. Big Shoes to Fill

Scalia’s death leaves the Supreme Court with big shoes to fill when it comes to tech jurisprudence. He was widely regarded as a strong defender of technology. Even his biggest critics concede that he was progressive when it came to technology. “Scalia’s opinions were backwards in almost every possible arena,” observed Katharine Trendacosta, a staff writer at tech blog Gizmodo. “For all the harm he did sitting on the Court for nearly thirty years, Scalia was surprisingly adept at understanding technology.”15 Likewise, Jack Smith IV, who covers technology and inequality for millennial news site Mic, wrote: “Say what you want about Justice Antonin Scalia, he was great for technology.”16 Lisa Larrimore Oullette, a professor of technology law at Stanford Law School, called him “a pro-technology Justice.”17 Michael Bennett, a lawyer and associate research professor at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society, labeled Scalia a “minor philosopher of technology.”18 Matthew Rozsa of Daily Dot, a blog covering Internet culture, added: “when it comes to Internet freedom, he may have been one of the great legal minds of our time.”19

In particular, video game enthusiasts owe a debt of gratitude to Scalia. He wrote the “historic majority opinion” in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, which gave video games First Amendment protection.20 The Supreme Court’s ruling stopped California from regulating video games as products like cigarettes and alcohol instead of as a medium for expression like music, books, and movies.21 The Entertainment Software Association praised the decision: “It was a momentous day for our industry and those who love the entertainment we create and we are indebted to Justice Scalia for so eloquently defending the rights of creators and consumer everywhere.”22

Scalia also left an indelible mark on digital privacy laws.23 He made several key rulings, including requiring law enforcement to get a warrant before accessing the iPhone of a person they arrested,24 before using thermal imaging devices to search a home for marijuana,25 or before tracking a suspect using GPS.26 Scalia’s precedents continue to shape tech law and policy in other ways. For example, digital privacy advocates are now using the GPS precedent to challenge the constitutionality of Stingray-style devices.27 Smith, a tech journalist, said Scalia’s strong support of digital privacy rights has altered the way police conduct investigations: “[S]omewhere out there, there are police officers trying to use the most sophisticated technology of our time to peer into our lives in ways we never thought possible. And because of Antonin Scalia, someone is saying, ‘You’re going to need a warrant for that.’”28

Additionally, Scalia was “net neutrality’s unlikely hero,” according to Robinson Meyer, tech editor for The Atlantic.29 He went against the Court’s majority in a 2005 case, National Cable & Telecommunications Ass’n v. Brand X Internet Services, arguing that Internet service was a telecommunications service, which made it subject to stricter government regulation.30 A decade later, the Federal Communications Commission reclassified Internet service as a telecommunication service in order to impose network neutrality—the principle that internet service providers should treat all data on the internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, or website.31 “It is certainly true that Justice Scalia’s dissent was pivotal to the FCC’s theories in the Open Internet Order,” said Peter Karanjia, co-chair of the appellate practice for law firm Davis Wright Tremaine. “The FCC in the order took pains to cite Justice Scalia’s opinion.”32

This is not to imply that Scalia was a computer whiz. During hearings, he sometimes asked embarrassing questions about technologies many Americans took for granted, such as cable television.33 He admitted to being “clueless” when it came to social media.34 And he staunchly opposed allowing cameras to broadcast Supreme Court hearings.35 But Scalia made great strides in understanding the latest technology. For example, at age 74, he boasted that he owned an iPod and an iPad and did so much work on his gadgets that he could “hardly write in longhand anymore.”36 Scalia also said that when he had to “take materials home for work, he use[d] a thumb drive, or accesse[d] the Court computer system remotely.”37 He even “joked that he played” the popular fighting game Mortal Kombat as part of his research in preparing for oral arguments in Brown.38

As a result, “he seemed to understand technology better than his peers,” according to Trendacosta.39 Likewise, Steve Vladeck, professor of law at University of Texas School of Law, said that “Justice Scalia was quick to grasp how particular technological innovations implicated constitutional protections in ways that might have taken his colleagues an additional step or two.”40 When reviewing Scalia’s body of work in technology cases, his legacy is nonpareil, according to experts. “[I]f there was any force in the forward-march of modern history that could consider Scalia a standard-bearer, it was technology . . . over and over again, he got it right,” Smith said.41 Stanford Law’s Oullette agreed: “[H]e deserves his reputation as a pro-technology Justice . . . . He supported legal rules that allow new technologies to flourish.”42

II. Gorsuch’s Mixed Record

Gorsuch has been dubbed “Scalia 2.0” by many court observers, including University of Michigan Law Professor Richard Primus, who wrote that Gorsuch is “not far from” being “Scalia reincarnated.”43 While that characterization may be accurate broadly speaking, it is less clear the two judges are identical when it comes to specific areas, especially technology law. Like Scalia, Gorsuch has a strong record defending free speech, including online speech. He also has some quirky preferences reminiscent of Scalia’s opposition to cameras in the courtroom. For example, while moonlighting as an adjunct law professor, Gorsuch “forbade students in his legal ethics class from using computers—an unusual move within law schools, where laptops are ubiquitous,” according to legal blog Above The Law.44 In contrast to Scalia, Gorsuch has been inconsistent in defending digital privacy rights. In addition, “Gorsuch, being the strict Constitutionalist that he is, may rule to strike down net neutrality regulations.”45 Given these disparities, Gorsuch’s record on technology deserves a closer look by the Senate.

On issues related to free speech, “it is readily apparent that” Gorsuch has a “long and informed commitment to the First Amendment,” according to Ronald Collins, a First Amendment professor at University of Washington School of Law.46 Gorsuch’s free speech advocacy includes defending the rights of online journalists. In a much-celebrated 2010 decision, Gorsuch joined Tenth Circuit in ruling that a college journalist had his constitutional rights violated when police searched his home and confiscated his computer after a professor complained of being libeled by the student’s online satirical newsletter. In his concurrence in Mink v. Knox, Gorsuch wrote that, “the First Amendment precludes defamation actions aimed at parody, even parody causing injury to individuals who are not public figures or involved in a public controversy.”47 The American Civil Liberties Union, Student Press Law Center and Foundation for Individual Rights in Education all lauded the court’s decision.48

On privacy matters, Gorsuch “has dealt with several Fourth Amendment cases that raised novel technology issues.”49 Based on his record on such cases, he does not appear to share Scalia’s “legacy as a defender of privacy rights”50 in technology. That said, as Orin S. Kerr, a George Washington University law professor who specializes in Fourth Amendment and technology issues observed, Gorsuch’s opinions suggest that he is “not a knee-jerk vote for the government.”51 Most recently, in August 2016, Gorsuch strengthened online privacy protections in United States v. Ackerman.52 That case—involving authorities searching emails for child pornography without a warrant—expanded the definition of what a search means, thereby expanding the types of situations that require a warrant to include instances where a person or organization is searching emails on behalf of the government.53 In a 2013 case, involving police officers erroneously stopping someone because of a faulty license plate database, then discovering evidence of a crime, Gorsuch ruled that the police’s use of the flawed technology made the search sufficiently unlawful to block prosecutors from using the drugs as evidence.54 In some cases, however, Gorsuch has sided with law enforcement. For example, in June 2016—despite Scalia’s and the Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling that police officers need warrants to monitor suspects’ movements by attaching GPS trackers to their cars—Gorsuch ruled that prosecutors could use GPS evidence without a warrant because the tracking occurred a year prior to the Supreme Court’s decision.55 In another blow to digital privacy, in the 2007 case United States v. Andrus, Gorsuch ruled that a 91-year-old man giving authorities permission to search his son’s computer files was sufficient consent under the Fourth Amendment.56 These inconsistent decisions indicate that Gorsuch could be a swing vote on digital privacy cases in the Supreme Court.

There is also doubt over whether Gorsuch will uphold network neutrality. Internet Service Providers have challenged the FCC’s policy in federal court and the case could eventually make its way to the Supreme Court by 2018 “by which point Gorsuch, of the Tenth Circuit, may be confirmed.”57 The FCC maintains that it has the authority to regulate the Internet based on the “Chevron doctrine,” named for a 1984 Supreme Court decision that expanded the regulatory power of the federal government, which Scalia “was often a defender of.”58 On the other hand, a “recent concurring opinion Gorsuch wrote from the appellate bench suggests that he could target just the sort of agency authority the FCC asserted in its net neutrality order.”59 In his August 2016 concurring opinion in Gutierrez-Brizuela v. Lynch, Gorsuch called Chevron, and a subsequent Supreme Court ruling that recognized the FCC’s authority to determine whether the Internet should be regulated as a telecommunications service, the “elephant in the room.”60 Gorsuch said the principles enshrined by Chevron “permit executive bureaucracies to swallow huge amounts of core judicial and legislative power and concentrate federal power in a way that seems more than a little difficult to square with the Constitution of the framers’ design.”61 According to Case Western Reserve University Law Professor Jonathan Adler, the issue of whether courts should defer to administrative agencies such as the FCC when a statute is ambiguous is “the greatest area of difference between Gorsuch and Scalia.”62

III. Tech Litmus Test

In addition to ruling on network neutrality, Gorsuch could make landmark rulings for technologies that have not even been imagined yet. Because Supreme Court Justices enjoy lifelong appointments, Gorsuch—who would be the youngest Justice on the current Supreme Court bench at 49 years old—could serve for three or four decades. Just within the next few years, several key issues involving technology are on the horizon. With Apple resisting the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s demand to help it hack a terrorist’s iPhone, Google’s data mining techniques leading to invasion of privacy lawsuits, and cyberbullying testing the limits of free speech, Ars Technica tech policy reporter Joe Silver predicts that “the Supreme Court is likely to be confronted with many . . . challenging technology cases, and it will play a central role in shaping the 21st century cyberlaw debate.”63

It is crucial that senators carefully vet Gorsuch to ensure he is the right jurist to decide such issues. Both his savvy and legal philosophy regarding technology should be examined. “Future nominees to the bench should be quizzed on their knowledge of technology at confirmation hearings,” suggested Trevor Timm, Executive Director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation.64 They do not need a million followers, or even a social media account. But, like Scalia, Court nominees should at least demonstrate a genuine desire to learn about \technology and attempt to properly balance innovation and expression with privacy and safety. “A justice typically isn’t confirmed or denied based on these kinds of issues,” said Shaun Bockert, an intellectual property attorney at Blank Rome.65 “There are hot button issues, and unfortunately whether software is copyrightable is not one of them.”66 But, as Wired’s Lapowsky notes, “that doesn’t mean these cases won’t have far-reaching implications for the tech industry and users of tech alike—which is to say pretty much everyone.”67 For everyone’s sake, the Senate must ensure Gorsuch is “very much in the mold of Justice Scalia” when it comes to technology.

  1. Issie Lapowsky, Trump’s SCOTUS Pick Needs to Get Tech—These Cases Show Why, Wired (Jan. 31, 2017, 9:32 PM),
  2. Kate Tummarello, Digital Rights Issues on the Horizon at the Supreme Court, Elec. Frontier Found. (Feb. 6, 2017),
  3. Ashcroft v. Am. Civil Liberties Union, 542 U.S. 656 (2004).
  4. Lisa A. Hayes, Justice Neil Gorsuch?, Ctr. for Democracy & Tech. (Jan. 31, 2017),
  5. Leading Cases, 144 Harv. L. Rev. 179, 184 (2010),
  6. Paul Fletcher, On Point: Don’t Know Much ‘Bout Technology . . ., Detroit Legal News (Jun. 13, 2014),
  7. Will Oremus, Elena Kagan Admits Supreme Court Justices Haven’t Quite Figured Out Email Yet, Slate (Aug. 2, 2013),
  8. Id.
  9. Jack Smith IV, Say What You Want About Justice Antonin Scalia, He Was Great for Technology, Mic (Feb. 14, 2016),
  10. Katharine Trendacosta, Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court’s Unlikely Defender of Technology, Gizmodo (Feb. 14, 2016),
  11. Robinson Meyer, Antonin Scalia Totally Gets Net Neutrality, Atlantic (May 16, 2014),
  12. Ian Lopez, A ‘Pro-Technology’ Justice Scalia’s Relationship with Tech, Legaltech News (Feb. 23, 2016),
  13. Jonathan H. Adler, How Scalia-esque Will Donald Trump’s Supreme Court Nominee Be?, Wash. Post: The Volokh Conspiracy (Jan. 26, 2016), (quoting Donald Trump).
  14. Richard Primus, Trump Picks Scalia 2.0, Politico Mag. (Jan. 31, 2017),
  15. Trendacosta, supra note 10.
  16. Smith IV, supra note 9.
  17. Lopez, supra note 12.
  18. Michael G. Bennett, Justice Scalia: Minor Philosopher of Technology, Medium (Apr. 7, 2016),
  19. Matthew Rozsa, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s Evolution on Internet Freedom, Daily Dot (Feb. 14, 2016, 10:16 AM),
  20. Owen S. Good, ESA Lauds the Late Antonin Scalia, Justice Who Enshrined Video Games as Protected Expression, Polygon (Feb. 14, 2016, 8:54 AM),
  21. Brown v. Entm’t Merch. Ass’n, 564 U.S. 786 (2011).
  22. Good, supra note 20.
  23. Lawrence Rosenthal, The Court After Scalia: Fourth Amendment Jurisprudence at a Crossroads, ScotusBlog (Sept. 9, 2016, 5:31 PM),
  24. Riley v. California, 134 S. Ct. 2473, 2485 (2014).
  25. Kyllo v. United States, 533 U.S. 27, 40 (2001).
  26. United States v. Jones, 565 U.S. 400, 400 (2012).
  27. Jennifer Lynch & Adam Schwartz, EFF to Court: Accessing Cell Phone Location Records Without a Warrant Violates the Constitution, Elec. Frontier Found. (Apr. 26, 2016),
  28. Smith IV, supra note 9.
  29. Meyer, supra note 11.
  30. 545 U.S. 967, 1006 (2005).
  31. In re Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet, 30 FCC Rcd. 5601 (2015),
  32. Jacob Fischler, Scalia’s Sharp Dissent Helped Shape Net Neutrality, Law360 (Feb. 17, 2016, 8:22 PM),
  33. Transcript of Oral Argument at 35, Am. Broad. Cos. v. Aereo, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 2498 (2014) (No. 13-461), (indicating Scalia did not understand that HBO was a cable network that was not available free over the airwaves).
  34. Jordan Fabian, Chairman to Justices: “Have Either of Y’all Ever Considered Tweeting or Twitting?,” The Hill: Hillicon Valley (May 21, 2010, 7:30 PM), (quoting Scalia’s testimony at a House judiciary subcommittee hearing).
  35. Maria Bartiromo, Justice Scalia Says “Not a Chance” to Cameras, Today (Oct. 11, 2005), (quoting Scalia on whether cameras will be allowed in the Supreme Court as saying, “Not a chance, because we don’t want to become entertainment. I think there’s something sick about making entertainment out of real people’s legal problems.”)
  36. David Lat, Justice Scalia at the Federalist Society Fête, Above The Law (Nov. 20, 2010, 7:36 PM),
  37. Id.
  38. Dean Takahashi, Supreme Court Justices Appear To Favor Video Game Industry in Violence Case, Venture Beat (Nov. 2, 2010, 9:30 AM),; see also Brown v. Entm’t Merch. Ass’n, 564 U.S. 786, 797 n.4 (2011) (“Reading Dante is unquestionably more cultured and intellectually edifying than playing Mortal Kombat,”).
  39. Trendacosta, supra note 10.
  40. Lopez, supra note 12.
  41. Smith IV, supra note 9.
  42. Lopez, supra note 12.
  43. Primus, supra note 14.
  44. Kathryn Rubino, Judge Gorsuch and the Laptop Ban, Above The Law (Feb. 6, 2017, 7:00 PM),
  45. Tara Seals, SCOTUS Pick Neil Gorsuch Will Have Important Voice on Data Privacy, Infosec. Mag. (Feb. 10, 2017),
  46. Ronald Collins, Judge Neil Gorsuch—the Scholarly First Amendment Jurist, First Amend. News (Feb. 7, 2017),
  47. Mink v. Knox, 613 F.3d 995, 1012 (10th Cir. 2010) (Gorsuch, J., concurring).
  48. Azhar Majeed, Prosecutor Coughs Up $425,000 for Violating Student’s First Amendment Rights, Found. for Individual Rights in Educ. (Dec. 13, 2011),
  49. Charlie Savage, Was That Search Illegal? Sometimes, Neil Gorsuch Ruled It Was, N.Y. Times (Feb. 2, 2017),
  50. Tom Risen, Garland Would Influence SCOTUS Encryption, Privacy Cases, U.S. News & World Report (Mar. 16, 2016, 5:15 PM),
  51. Savage, supra note 49.
  52. United States v. Ackerman, 831 F.3d 1292 (10th Cir. 2016).
  53. Id. at 4; see also Tummarello, supra note 2.
  54. United States v. Esquivel-Rios, 725 F.3d 1231 (10th Cir. 2013).
  55. United States v. Mitchell, 653 F. App’x 651 (10th Cir. 2016).
  56. United States v. Andrus, 483 F.3d 711 (10th Cir. 2007).
  57. Kyle Daly, GOP Lawmakers Leave Net Neutrality to FCC to Pressure Dems, Bloomberg BNA (Feb. 13, 2017),
  58. Fischler, supra note 32.
  59. Daly, supra note 58.
  60. Gutierrez-Brizuela v. Lynch, 834 F.3d 1142, 1149 (10th Cir. 2016).
  61. Id.
  62. Jonathan H. Adler, Gorsuch’s Judicial Philosophy is Like Scalia’s—With One Big Difference, Wash. Post (Feb. 1, 2016),
  63. Joe Silver, Supreme Court Struggles with E-Mail But Will Shape Technology’s Future, Ars Technica (May 6, 2014, 3:44 PM),
  64. Trevor Timm, Technology Law Will Soon Be Reshaped By People Who Don’t Use Email, Guardian (May 3, 2014),
  65. Lapowsky, supra note 1.
  66. Id.
  67. Id.

No Country for Cybersecurity Arbitrage

* Partner, Yigal Arnon & Co., Jerusalem, Israel. J.D., Yale Law School; M.S., Columbia University.


On October 28, 2016, regulations issued by the Copyright Office exempted a wide swath of cybersecurity research from the anti-circumvention provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).1 These regulatory exemptions were motivated by assertions that the DMCA anti-circumvention prohibitions hinder cybersecurity research and practice. This article investigates the accuracy of these claims by examining the single developed market economy2 that does not prohibit (and is not obligated under treaty to prohibit) the use of anti-circumvention technology. More generally, this article examines the ability of firms to engage in international regulatory arbitrage – to exploit regulatory disparities across jurisdiction.3 The analysis demonstrates that opportunities to engage in regulatory arbitrage cannot be analyzed without attention to the identity and structure of industry players.

Broadly speaking, anti-circumvention prohibitions assist copyright holders in controlling their works. Copyright holders often use technology to prevent unauthorized use or distribution. Such technology may include, for example, measures that prevent the illicit distribution of music or e-books, software that prevents the use of mobile phones on competing networks,4 or mechanisms that prevent unauthorized tampering with software in automotive vehicles.5 Statutory anti-circumvention prohibitions (such as those in the DMCA) impose civil or criminal liability for bypassing such technological measures.

Over the last twenty years, international treaties have required most of the developed world to ban technology that circumvents technological protection measures. Israel is unique among the developed market economies in that it has not, and vociferously does not intend to, promulgate any anti-circumvention prohibitions. In superficial confirmation of the cybersecurity criticisms of anti-circumvention law, Israel boasts a booming industry in security technology, far out of proportion to its relatively small population. Nevertheless, as shown below, there is scant evidence to connect Israel’s success in cybersecurity to its lack of anti-circumvention prohibitions.

This article complements existing literature by providing insight into the actual effects of non-circumvention prohibitions, and the current wisdom of creating a regulatory exception for security research. In a broader sense, however, the paper adds to a “surprisingly thin”6 literature on international regulatory arbitrage. Existing research into regulatory arbitrage has mostly concentrated on how jurisdictions compete for business activity through regulatory innovation, with little attention paid to how actors and institutions actually take advantage of those differences or how arbitrage opportunities are mediated by technological, commercial and national institutions.7 This paper shows the importance of analyzing the character and organization of firms and institutions in determining the scope of actual arbitrage opportunities.

I. Anti-Circumvention and Security Research

Anti-circumvention restrictions have been imposed by many countries, and are cemented in international treaties. Article 11 of the WIPO Copyright Treaty (WCT), for example, provides that countries will protect “against the circumvention of effective technological measures . . . that restrict acts, in respect of their works, which are not authorized by the authors.”8

In 1998, Congress passed the DMCA, bringing the United States into compliance with the WCT. The DMCA prohibits circumvention of any “technological measure that effectively controls access” to a copyrighted work.9 In addition, the DMCA prohibits trafficking in technology that is designed or marketed for the purpose of circumventing protection measures that control access to or copying of copyrighted works.10 The European Union implemented the anti-circumvention provisions of the WCT treaty in EU Directive 2001/29/EC. The Directive requires member states to provide “adequate legal protection against the circumvention of any effective technological measures” as well as against the trafficking of circumvention technologies.11

A number of commentators have expressed strong concern that anti-circumvention prohibitions discourage research into security vulnerabilities.12 In the course of investigating any specific technology for vulnerabilities, security researchers are likely to probe and possibly disable any technical measures protecting such technology. Moreover, the subsequent dissemination and publication of such security research – which can include directions on how to circumvent the protection measure – could lead to charges of illegal “trafficking” in circumvention technology. Indeed, individuals conducting research into security vulnerabilities have been threatened with civil and criminal action under the anti-circumvention provisions of the DMCA.13

The DMCA does contain statutory exceptions permitting “encryption research”14 and “security testing”15 activities. These statutory exceptions, however, are limited by an array of conditions that narrow their practical significance.16 Exemptions for security and encryption research in the EU Directive are also limited. Recital 48 of the Directive does declare that the anti-circumvention prohibition “should not hinder cryptography research,” but this declaration was not translated into an operational provision of the Directive. Only a limited number of EU countries have in fact implemented any exceptions for encryption research or security activities in their national laws.17

The DMCA authorizes the Librarian of Congress to grant limited exemptions to the DMCA anti-circumvention prohibitions.18 Given the narrow applicability of the statutory exceptions, interested parties have over the years applied to the Librarian to obtain broader exceptions for security research activities. After overcoming its initial skepticism, the Librarian granted a number of relatively narrow exceptions for security testing.19 In the recent 2015 rulemaking, however, the Librarian granted the broadest exception to date for “good faith security research.”20 This last exception was granted pursuant to findings that the existing statutory exceptions were “inadequate to accommodate” security research activities “due to various limitations and conditions”, and that the anti-circumvention prohibitions of the DMCA had hindered “legitimate security research.”21 Even this relatively broad exemption, however, were circumscribed by a number of limitations and restrictions.22

II. A Regulatory Arbitrage Opportunity

Alone among the OECD countries, Israel has neither implemented any anti-circumvention prohibitions in its domestic law nor is it under any international treaty obligation to implement such prohibitions.23 Indeed, the legality of circumventing technological protection measures in Israel is unusually clear.24 In 2007 Israel adopted a new copyright law, which deliberately omitted any provisions concerning anti-circumvention technology. As described in more detail below, The Supreme Court of Israel subsequently confirmed that Israeli copyright law cannot be interpreted to infer a prohibition on anti-circumvention technology. Moreover, also as described below, Israel has defended its lack of legal anti-circumvention prohibitions on the international stage.

In 2013, the Supreme Court of Israel confirmed in Telran Communications (1986), Ltd. v. Charlton, Ltd. that Israeli copyright law, in the absence of any express provisions prohibiting the circumvention of technological measures, could not be interpreted to imply such a prohibition.25 The Telran defendants sold (unauthorized) cards that allowed for the decryption of foreign satellite communications. The plaintiff asserted that Telran’s sale of the cards interfered with plaintiff’s exclusive rights to broadcast the 2006 World Cup within Israel. The case raised a number of questions, including as to whether the circumvention of broadcast encryption was prohibited by Israeli law. The Court noted that the Knesset was aware of the WCT treaty, and yet did not include prohibitions on circumvention technology in domestic Israeli law. As such, the Court ruled that existing statutory provisions could not be interpreted to prohibit circumvention technologies.

Moreover, the government of Israel has publicly defended its failure to implement prohibitions against circumvention measures. Until 2014, Israel was included in the annual Special 301 Report of the United States Trade Representative (USTR).26 In each report, the USTR encouraged Israel to implement the WCT treaty (and, by extension, prohibitions on the circumvention of technological measures). Nevertheless, in a 2009 submission to the USTR, the Israeli government boldly refused to implement anti-circumvention prohibitions, noting that several large Israeli “authors’ groups” were “vehemently opposed” to such bans.27

The case of Israel provides an excellent test case for analyzing claims that legal anti-circumvention restrictions impede security research. If such assertions are correct then, all things being equal, jurisdictions that lack such circumvention prohibitions should see a boost to their cybersecurity research and development efforts.28 Academics in such jurisdictions would be able to conduct research that would be legally problematic elsewhere. Multinationals would be able to shift cybersecurity research to such countries, evading the legal problems that would dog those efforts in other jurisdictions. Local technologists would gain unique experience in circumvention technologies, and startups benefiting from the unique ecosystem would be able to develop inimitable products and services.

Indeed, Israel boasts a booming cybersecurity industry. Israel, with a population of just more than 8 million, exports more cybersecurity-related products and services than all other countries in the world combined, excluding the United States.29 Reports show the tiny country making 5% of all global sales in cyber security products and attracting 20% of global investment in the sector.30 Israel should be exceedingly well positioned to take advantage of any arbitrage opportunity presented by its lack of anti-circumvention prohibitions.

Even so, there is scant evidence to connect Israel’s cybersecurity prowess to its lack of legal prohibitions on circumvention technology. Instead, Israel’s unusual expertise in cybersecurity is variously attributed to government support of the industry, the country’s precarious geopolitical security position, public investments in education, or connections between the Israeli military and civilian technology firms.31 Scholarly accounts of Israel’s cybersecurity policies do not address Israel’s lack of anti-circumvention prohibitions.32 Multinationals with Israeli branches do not point to the lack of anti-circumvention prohibitions as a reason for establishing those offices.33 In sum, an objective outside observer of Israel’s cybersecurity industry would be justified in concluding that the country’s lack of anti-circumvention prohibitions is irrelevant to the success of its cybersecurity industry.

Exemptions to anti-circumvention prohibitions are not costless. Allowing circumvention activities can, aside from increasing the risk of intellectual property infringement, raise serious security34 and safety concerns.35 The case of Israel may show that the benefit to security research from permitting circumvention activities is minimal. As such, the new DMCA regulatory exemptions for security research may not be justified, in that they impose substantial risks for little profit.

III. Structural Barriers to Arbitrage

At first glance, the seemingly underwhelming effects of Israel’s regulatory regime suggest that non-circumvention controls have little impact on the cybersecurity industry. This section, however, considers a number of structural barriers that may prevent actors and institutions from exploiting the opportunity presented by Israel’s lack of anti-circumvention controls. In other words, the failure of industry and academic players to arbitrage Israel’s lack of anti-circumvention prohibitions may not mean that such prohibitions do not impact security research. Rather, the ability of actors to take advantage of international regulatory differences must be evaluated in light of constraints and incentives in the industry.

First, the internal organization of commercial cybersecurity firms may prevent those companies from engaging in cross-border legal arbitrage. Cybersecurity firms often boast international teams, providing such companies with the capability of providing around-the-clock services for malware analysis and software support.36 Such global firms are often structured to allow cross-border cooperation among international teams and, as such, they may resist arbitrage opportunities that require them to cage specific activities within a single jurisdiction. Smaller, local firms may also refrain from pursuing activities upon which the global economy looks askance, especially if the local firm is hoping to be acquired by an international cybersecurity concern.

From this perspective, the very uniqueness of Israel’s legal position may prevent firms from effectively pursuing the arbitrage opportunity. A global firm that wishes to exploit Israel’s exceptional lack of anti-circumvention prohibitions must be careful to confine any potentially illegal circumvention activities to Israel. Employees and contractors located outside Israel must, regardless of how the firm ordinarily structures its international cooperation, shy away from those activities. The firm’s legal counsel may have difficulty drawing a precise line between permitted international interaction and proscribed assistance to the “rogue” Israeli researchers. In other words, a firm may determine that the cost of realizing the arbitrage possibility (and disregarding clear, firm-wide standards) exceeds the benefit to be had from the arbitrage itself.37

Second, the distinctive structure of anti-circumvention provisions may work to thwart the possibility of legal arbitrage. Many jurisdictions prohibit not only the act of circumvention, but also the act of trafficking in circumvention technologies.38 These trafficking prohibitions may not legally reach extraterritorial conduct, but in practice they hinder cybersecurity research worldwide. First, researchers may be concerned that scholarship disseminated in other jurisdictions could violate those countries’ bans on trafficking in circumvention technologies, even though the research was originally published in jurisdictions where those activities were legal.39 Second, trafficking prohibitions could limit the enthusiasm of multinationals to take advantage of the arbitrage opportunity, since any cross-border sharing of legally developed circumvention technology could violate the trafficking ban. In other words, the trafficking prohibition makes it more difficult to cage anti-circumvention activities in Israel, thus further limiting the ability of firms to engage in regulatory arbitrage.

A third possibility would view Israel’s legal arrangements as less unique than presented by a first reading of the statutory anti-circumvention prohibitions. Commentators have noted that much Israeli cybersecurity research and development occurs in the context of Israel’s military and national security organizations. These organizations also serve as training grounds for future technologists and entrepreneurs, many of whom join the commercial sector or establish startup companies when they conclude their military service.

Like Israel, many countries can conduct research into circumvention technologies through their military or other security organizations. Laws against circumvention technology often exempt law enforcement, militaries and security agencies from that prohibition. For example, the DMCA expressly exempts “lawfully authorized investigative, protective, information security, or intelligence activity” from its anti-circumvention prohibitions.40 This exemption also extends to contractors working on behalf of the government.41 Similarly, the EU Copyright Directive provides that the anti-circumvention prohibition shall be applied “without prejudice to … public security.”42 As such, Israel’s military institutions and actors do not benefit from a unique legal space for circumvention technologies. Rather, experience in circumvention technologies can be had in security agencies worldwide.


Israel’s resistance to controls on circumvention technology contrasts starkly with the legal picture in other developed countries, presenting a clear opportunity for international regulatory arbitrage. Industry players, however, seem to have declined the chance to exploit Israel’s distinctive legal position, and this article has suggested a number of explanations for their reluctance. The common denominator of these suggestions is that the possibility of regulatory arbitrage cannot be analyzed independently of the character and organization of the institutions that engage in the regulated activity. Commercial entities, and especially multinationals, may not be structured in a manner that facilitates recognition and exploitation of differences across jurisdictions. On the other hand, governments and militaries may not require the possibility of regulatory arbitrage in order to engage in the controlled activity. At base, the analysis of international regulatory arbitrage and competition demands not only the identification of appropriate legal differences, but also an analysis of the structures and incentives that facilitate or prevent the exploitation of those differences.


  1. Exemption to Prohibition on Circumvention of Copyright Protection Systems for Access Control Technologies, 80 Fed. Reg. 65,944 (Oct. 28, 2015) (to be codified at 37 C.F.R. pt. 201) [hereinafter 2015 Exemptions\. Most provisions of the 2015 Exemptions came into effect on October 28, 2015. The effectiveness of the security research exemption was delayed for one year in order to allow “other parts of the government sufficient opportunity” to opine on the “wisdom of granting an exemption” for the purpose of cybersecurity research. Id. at 65,956.
  2. This Article uses a country’s membership in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (“OECD”) as a proxy for whether it constitutes a developed market economy.
  3. For a description of how intellectual property rules may enable international regulatory arbitrage, see Pamela Samuelson, Intellectual Property Arbitrage: How Foreign Rules Can Affect Domestic Protections, 71 U. Chi. L. Rev. 223 (2004).
  4. See, e.g., Tracfone Wireless Inc. v. Dixon, 475 F. Supp. 2d 1236 (M.D. Fla. 2007) (holding that unlocking cellular handsets violates the DMCA).
  5. See 2015 Exemption, supra note 1, at 65,954 (discussing anti-circumvention technology in motor vehicles).
  6. Annelise Riles, Managing Regulatory Arbitrage: A Conflict of Laws Approach, 47 Cornell Int’l L.J. 63, 68 (2014).
  7. Claudio M. Radaelli, The Puzzle of Regulatory Competition, 24 J. Pub. Pol’y 1, 13 (2004) (stating that “we do not know enough about how corporations … respond to international regulatory competition”).
  8. World Intellectual Property Organization Copyright Treaty art. 11, Dec. 20, 1996, 17 U.S.C. §§ 1201–1205. Article 18 of the World Intellectual Property Organization Performance and Phonograms Treaty contains a similar provision. See World Intellectual Property Organization Performances and Phonograms Treaty art. 18, December 20, 1996, 17 U.S.C. §§ 1201–1205.
  9. 17 U.S.C. § 1201(a)(1) (2016).
  10. 17 U.S.C. § 1201(a)(2) (2016) (prohibition on trafficking in technology that circumvents access controls); 17 U.S.C. § 1201(b)(1) (2016) (prohibition on trafficking in technology that circumvents the “protection afforded by a technological measure that effectively protects a right of a copyright owner”).
  11. EU Directive 2001/29, art. 6, 2001 O.J. (L 167) 17 (EC) [hereinafter EU Copyright Directive\. Council Directive 91/250, 1991 O.J. (L 122) (EC) also imposes anti-circumvention prohibitions on software works.
  12. See, e.g., Derek E. Bambauer and Oliver Day, The Hacker’s Aegis, 60 Emory L.J. 1051 (2011); Jennifer Stisa Granick, The Price of Restricting Vulnerability Publications, 9 Int’l J. Comm. L. & Pol’y 1, 9 (2005); Joseph P. Liu, The Law and Technology of Digital Rights Management: The DMCA and the Regulation of Scientific Research, 18 Berk. Tech. L.J. 501 (2003).
  13. Bamberger & Day, supra note 12, at 1080; Granick, supra note 12, at 10, 19. The Librarian of Congress expressed similar concerns when promulgating the 2015 Exemptions. See infra text accompanying note 21.
  14. 17 U.S.C. § 1201(g) (2016).
  15. 17 U.S.C. § 1201(j) (2016).
  16. Bambauer & Day, supra note 12, at 1083; Liu, supra note 12, at 509.
  17. Ian Brown, The Evolution of Anti-Circumvention Law, 20 Int’l Rev. L. & Computers 240 (2006).
  18. 17 U.S.C. §§ 1201(a)(1)(B)–(D) (2016).
  19. The first request for security testing exemptions was advanced during the 2003 rulemaking procedures, but the Librarian asserted that the request “failed to explain why the existing exemptions are insufficient.” Exemption to Prohibition on Circumvention of Copyright Protection Systems for Access Control Technologies, 68 Fed. Reg. 62,011, 62,018 (Oct. 31, 2003). During the 2006 rulemaking process, the Librarian granted a narrow exception for security research in CDs, finding the exception necessary “in light of . . . [the\ uncertainty” of the statutory exception “and the seriousness of the problem” of security vulnerabilities. Exemption to Prohibition on Circumvention of Copyright Protection Systems for Access Control Technologies, 71 Fed. Reg. 68,472, 68,477 (Nov. 27, 2006). The 2010 rules contained an exception for the circumvention of technical protection measures applicable to video game technology. Exemption to Prohibition on Circumvention of Copyright Protection Systems for Access Control Technologies, 75 Fed. Reg. 43,825, 43,839 (July 27, 2010).
  20. 2015 Exemptions, supra note 1, at 65,956.
  21. Id.
  22. Id.
  23. All OECD countries have acceded to the WCT treaty save Iceland, Israel, New Zealand and Norway. For a list of the contracting parties to the WCT, see WIPO Copyright Treaty Contracting Parties. World Intell. Prop. Org., (last visited Jan. 21, 2017). Nevertheless, Iceland and Norway, as members of the European Economic Area, have implemented prohibitions on anti-circumvention technology in their domestic law. See Copyright Act, Article 50a–50d (Act No. 73/1972)(Ice.); Copyright Act, Sections 50a–50e (Act No. 2/1962)(Nor.). New Zealand has also implemented anti-circumvention provisions in its domestic law. See Copyright Act, Sections 226A–226E (Act No. 143/1994)(N.Z.). Chile has to date not implemented any anti-circumvention provisions under its domestic law, though it is obligated to do so under Article 11 of the WCT treaty and Article 17(5) of the United States-Chile Free Trade Agreement. See United States-Chile Free Trade Agreement, art. 17(5), June 6, 2003, 19 C.F.R. §§ 10.401–10.490; World Intellectual Property Organization Copyright Treaty art. 11, Dec. 20, 1996, 17 U.S.C. §§ 1201–1205.
  24. The ability to engage in international regulatory arbitrage depends to some extent on the clarity of the regulatory differences between jurisdictions. See Radaelli, supra note 7, at 7.
  25. CA 5097/11 Telran Communications (1986) Ltd. v. Charlton Ltd (Nevo, September 2, 2013) (Isr.).
  26. The Special 301 Report is an annual report produced by the USTR reviewing the “global state of intellectual property rights (IPR) protection and enforcement.” Office of the United States Trade Representative, Special 301,
  27. Office of the United States Trade Representative, 2009 Submission of the Government of Israel to the United States Trade Representative with Respect to the 2009 “Special 301 Review”, at 8. See also Nate Anderson, Israel Rebukes US: Our Copyright Laws Are Fine, Thanks, Ars Technica (Mar. 18, 2008),
  28. See Samuelson, supra note 3, at 226 (discussing how lower-protection IP regimes can spur innovation in software).
  29. Barbara Opall-Rome, Israel Claims Surge in Cyber Sales, Investment, Defense News (Jan. 21 2016),
  30. See, e.g., id.; John Reed, Israel Cyber-Security Expertise Lures Growing Share of Investment, Financial Times (Jan. 12, 2016), For a wide-ranging discussion of Israeli advances in cybersecurity, see Michael Eisenstadt & David Pollock, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Asset Test: How the United States Benefits from its Alliance with Israel 34-37 (2012).
  31. See, e.g., Lior Tabansky & Isaac Ben Israel, Cybersecurity in Israel 18 et seq. (2015) (attributing Israel’s high-technology success to elements of culture and human capital, including the role of the military in developing these, and government incentives for research and development); Peter Suciu, Why Israel Dominates in Cyber Security, Fortune (Sept. 1, 2015), (attributing Israel’s success in cybersecurity to geopolitical pressures on the country).
  32. See, e.g., Daniel Benoliel, Towards a Cybersecurity Policy Model: Israel National Cyber Bureau Case Study, 16 N.C. J.L. & Tech. 435 (2015).
  33. See, e.g., Einat Paz-Frankel, Why the World’s Largest Tech Companies All Want a Piece of the Israeli Pie, NoCamels Israeli Innovation News (Sept. 30, 2015),
  34. See, e.g., 2015 Exemptions, supra note 1, at 65,955 (noting concerns that information obtained from circumvention activities could be used to “hack into highly regulated machines and devices, including medical devices and vehicles”).
  35. See id. (expressing concern that “security researchers may not fully appreciate the potential ramifications of their acts of circumvention on automobile safety”).
  36. See, e.g., Kim Zetter, Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World’s First Digital Weapon 19, 58 (2015) (describing international cooperation among teams in the computer security industry).
  37. Cf. Jack L. Goldsmith & Alan O. Sykes, The Internet and the Dormant Commerce Clause, 110 Yale L.J. 785, 806 (2001) (discussing the difficulty of complying with inconsistent regulations across jurisdictions).
  38. See supra notes 10-11 (noting anti-trafficking provisions in the DMCA and European Union Directives).
  39. Foreign computer programmers have in fact been arrested in the United States under the DMCA for their part in creating circumvention technologies abroad. See Liu, supra note 12, at 514.
  40. 17 U.S.C. 1201(e) (2016).
  41. Id.
  42. EU Copyright Directive, supra note 11, at 14. See also id. at 18 (“This Directive shall be without prejudice to provisions concerning . . . security.”).

What Shareholder Proposals on Proxy Access Tell Us About its Value

* Bernard S. Sharfman is an associate fellow of the R Street Institute and a member of the Journal of Corporation Law’s editorial advisory board. Mr. Sharfman would like to thank Jonathan Cohn, Shane C. Goodwin, John G. Matsusaka, and Tara Bhandari for their helpful comments and suggestions. Mr. Sharfman is dedicating this article to his wife, Susan David, and his daughter, Amy Sharfman.


Proxy access is the ability of certain privileged shareholders to have their own slate of director nominees included in the company’s proxy materials whether or not the board of directors (“Board”) approves. These materials include a proxy statement used to solicit shareholder votes and a voting card allowing shareholders to vote without having to attend the annual meeting.1 For many years, the default rules of corporate and securities law have provided the Board with exclusive authority to decide whether shareholder proposals seeking to implement proxy access are to be included in a public company’s proxy solicitation materials. Five years ago the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) amended its rules to require these proposals be included.2

Because of the difficulty of crafting a binding proxy access bylaw within the confines of the SEC’s 500 word limit on shareholder proposals,3 proposals are usually non-binding, requesting, not requiring, the Board to implement proxy access by amending the company’s governing documents. These proposals can be understood as the first step in the process of implementing proxy access on a company-by-company basis.

Roughly 200 companies received proxy-access proposals in 2016.4 The proposals usually limit the availability of proxy access to large shareholders who have held at least three percent of company shares, individually or as an aggregation of 20 to 25 investors, for at least three years.

When voting on a proxy access proposal, shareholders need to be informed about the expected effect of proxy access on the market value of their shares. Boards also need to be informed about this expected change in value when considering if it should amend its governing documents to include proxy access, either for purposes of preempting a shareholder vote or considering its implementation subsequent to such a vote at the annual meeting. The SEC needs to be informed about the expected change in value on a market-wide basis prior to making any changes to its proxy access rules, including putting back on its agenda the idea of universal proxy access for all public companies (“universal proxy access”).5

One way to understand the value of proxy access is through empirical analysis of the shareholder proposals on proxy access that have already been submitted for inclusion in the proxy materials of public companies. Unfortunately, the empirical research on these proposals is limited to one empirical study. This study, even though well executed, leads to more questions than answers and thus cannot be relied upon as authority on a standalone basis. This is a critical point that shareholders, board members, and the SEC need to understand when such empirical evidence is used in support of or against proxy access.

I. The Bhandari Report

The available empirical study is a report prepared by Tara Bhandari, Peter Ilievy, and Jonathan Kalodimos.6 The report was initiated when all three were employees of the SEC’s Division of Economic and Risk Analysis.7 This report took the form of an “event study.” An event study investigates the impact of new information upon the expected stock returns of a targeted cross-section of firms.8 In the report, the event was the Office of the Comptroller of New York City’s (“Comptroller”), the custodian and investment adviser to the New York City Pension Funds, unexpected announcement to the public that it had simultaneously submitted non-binding proxy access proposals to 75 public companies.9

An event study is used to determine “whether there is an abnormal stock price effect associated with an unanticipated event”10 (the Comptroller’s announcement) on a sample of firms that may have been uniquely affected by the event (the 75 firms to which the Comptroller simultaneously submitted proposals). The null hypothesis to be tested is whether the mean abnormal return (abnormal stock price effect on the targeted sample of firms) at the time of the event is equal to zero. That is, if there was no effect from the announcement, then the mean abnormal return at the time of the event will equal zero.11 The event date was November 6, 2014. The authors found that the Comptroller’s announcement led to a positive, statistically significant, 0.53% abnormal return for the 70 firms12 used in their sample. In terms of hypothesis testing, the results meant that the null hypothesis had been rejected.13 Moreover, they interestingly found a strong correlation between the returns generated on this event date and the returns of the sample on the date, approximately four years earlier,14 when the SEC announced it was going to stay the implementation of its universal proxy access rule.15

II. Selection Bias and a Lack of Randomness

Even though the Bhandari report indicates that proxy access has value, this is far from the end of the story. The small sample size makes it very difficult to make inferences about why the Comptroller’s announcement had such a significant impact on the target firms. The sample cannot be further broken up to see if certain sub-groups are responsible for moving the numbers.

Moreover, the sample lacks randomness as a result of selection bias. Randomness means that each element of a population has an equal chance of being part of the sample. A random sample is required in order to make generalized claims about how the entire population of U.S. public firms would be affected by shareholder proposals on proxy access (i.e. external validity). The Comptroller’s selection process violated the requirement of randomness and, therefore, the results lack external validity.

The 75 companies were targeted for multiple reasons unrelated to enhancing shareholder value. Thirty-three were targeted because they were in industries directly related to climate change; 24 for a lack of board diversity; and 25 were cited for having received “significant opposition to their 2014 advisory vote on executive compensation.”16 This resulted in 20 of the 75 target firms being from the gas and oil industry, nine from the utilities industry and another six from the coal industry.17 Such a weighting of companies either producing or consuming huge quantities of carbon-based fuels is not representative of the current universe of U.S. public companies.18

It is also reasonable to assume that the selection process was a function of how successful the Comptroller expected to be in either getting firms to implement proxy access prior to a shareholder vote or at least getting a substantial percentage of votes if a shareholder vote took place. The Comptroller would not have wasted its time selecting a firm where the expected probability of success was zero or close to it. According to Nell Minow, a leader in the shareholder empowerment movement, the Comptroller has “been very smart about picking companies where shareholders are looking to make a change.”19

However, the selection bias discussed so far does not entirely explain how the Comptroller whittled down the number of targeted firms to 75 out of the over 3,000 public firms that it could choose from. It is reasonable to assume that it also targeted firms that had not been historically responsive to its engagement or the engagement of other like-minded shareholder activists on issues including board diversity, executive compensation, climate change, disclosure of political contributions, employee wages, etc. According to the Comptroller, “to effect true change, you need the ability to hold entrenched and unresponsive boards accountable and that is what we are seeking to do.”20 Therefore, an additional targeting criterion may have been firms that had not adequately cooperated on one or more of these other issues. For those firms that had been cooperative, it would be counterproductive for the Comptroller to target them for proxy access. This additional criterion would have created more bias in the sample.

One counterargument is that the Comptroller’s sample was random with respect to the expected value of proxy access. Ironically, as described above, this may be true to some extent given that the Comptroller was not targeting firms based solely on the criterion of enhancing shareholder value. However, the abnormal returns found in the Bhandari report did not measure the value of proxy access per se, but the expected returns of proxy access as a function of both the market’s estimation of its value at a target firm (positive or negative) and the probability that proxy access could actually be achieved at the firm. Selection bias with respect to the second variable may have resulted in a lack of external validity.

As argued above, the Comptroller would have targeted firms where it believed it would have success, i.e. firms with dissatisfied investor bases, making the probability of success higher than it would be if the target firms were selected in a random fashion. Moreover, it is possible that the two variables are not independent, but are positively correlated. In other words, the greater the level of investor dissatisfaction means not only the higher probability of success but also the greater the likelihood the market will find the value of proxy access to be positive. If so, then the Comptroller’s selection process will yield more companies that the market feels will benefit from proxy access versus a randomly selected sample.

In sum, the Comptroller’s selection process excluded a vast sector of the universe of public companies. This adversely affected the ability of the analysis to accurately represent the expected benefits or costs of proxy access to all public companies, making the results biased, most likely in the upward direction. The study thus lacks external validity outside the boundaries of the Comptroller’s selection criteria.21 The results of the Bhandari report may be able to inform us about how proxy access may have affected the firms in the small sample under study, but there is great uncertainty if it can be generalized to the three thousand plus other firms that also make up the universe of public companies.

III. Omitted Variable Bias

Even if the Bhandari report lacks external validity, one result that is still extremely interesting is the finding that the Comptroller’s announcement had such a large impact on the value of the target sample, a 0.53% average abnormal return. This result is puzzling given the proposals were non-binding and uncertainty existed over whether they would win approval by shareholders or be implemented by the Board even after shareholder approval. Moreover, there was uncertainty whether shareholders had the wherewithal or even desire to ever use their right to nominate if implemented, and if they did use their right to nominate, if any of their nominees would actually win election.

There are several other reasons why the result is perplexing. First, the proposals effectively excluded activist hedge funds from participating in proxy access because of the required three-year holding period.22 Second, the Bhandari report found that the Comptroller was not specifically targeting poor performing firms that could benefit the most from proxy access.23 Third, the study controlled for abnormal returns generated by the industries where the target firms belonged.24 But most importantly, proxy access does not exist in isolation from the markets for corporate control (friendly and hostile takeovers through mergers and acquisitions)25 and influence (shareholder activism including hedge fund activism),26 the primary means by which board members are replaced outside of board nominating committees.

In the market for corporate control, Doidge, Karolyi, and Stulz report that from 1997 to 2012, 4,957 firms were delisted from U.S. stock exchanges as a result of merger activity.27 This activity must have resulted in thousands of Board members losing their seats. In the market for corporate influence, shareholders are already getting significant board representation through engagement with the Board. From 2006 to 2013, a total of 1,128 dissident seats were granted to shareholders either through a proxy contest or private negotiation, with 179 in 2013 alone.28 Moreover, of those 1,128 seats granted, 702 seats were gained through hedge fund activism.29

Given the more powerful means by which to change the composition of a Board, this should put a significant cap on the value of proxy access as a means to reduce agency costs caused by the separation of share ownership from board management. In sum, the 0.53% average abnormal return found in the Bhandari report is counter-intuitive.

A possible explanation is that one or more independent variables, not specified in the event study’s regression equation, may be causing the abnormal return. If so, then there may be omitted variables that are correlated with both a company receiving a proxy access proposal from the Comptroller and the abnormal returns generated by the shares of the target firms on the event date.

So, what could these omitted or missing independent variables be if they indeed exist? For one, such a variable would describe the level of dissatisfaction the company’s shareholder investor base currently has with the Board and/or executive management. The identification of a dissatisfied shareholder base is critical to the workings of those who participate in the market for corporate control (takeovers) and hedge fund activism.<30

If correct, then we should interpret the appearance of a proxy access proposal as a new or confirming signal to the market that there is a high level of shareholder dissatisfaction with the Board. Proxy access, unlike other shareholder proposals, makes a compelling statement that large activist institutional investors are extremely dissatisfied with the Board and would be happy to see a change.

Such a proposal is a clear signal to the market that the Board may be vulnerable to hedge fund activism or a takeover (friendly or hostile), especially when the stock price has been under pressure.31 In essence, the company has been put “in play.” This is valuable information for the market in its process of continually reevaluating the price of a company’s shares. We know from recent research on hedge fund activism that the up-front gains in a company’s stock price from such activism can be extremely rewarding to shareholders.32 Therefore, the increased potential for hedge fund activism or acquisition activity may be the true drivers of the abnormal returns found in the Bhandari report, not the market’s estimation of the value of proxy access as a stand-alone tool for enhancing corporate governance.

A counterargument is that the report’s finding of a strong correlation between the returns of the target firms on the date that the Comptroller announced its proxy access initiative and the returns that the target firms yielded on the date the SEC stayed its universal proxy access rule confirms the primary role of proxy access as being the cause in the change in value. Yet, this interesting finding does not negate the potential for omitted variables as an explanation for the counter-intuitive results. The potential for omitted variables still needs to be researched. If such a variable is found, then the strong correlation discussed above is just that: a correlation between two events, and only two events, that occurred four years apart, and no more.

In sum, the mean abnormal returns are much too high to be explained simply by the disclosure of the Comptroller’s proxy access proposals. Proxy access is just a very small part of the story of how Board composition is influenced by market forces. The potential for omitted variables is great and needs to be explored in future empirical studies.

IV. Non-Stationarity

The Bhandari report, which focused on one event at one point in time, must also be understood in the context of non-stationarity: the potential for the stock market to react differently to the same events at different points in time.33 If non-stationarity exists, then the stock market may provide “one result for a period and a diverse outcome for another period” as the perception of investors change over time.34 This is consistent with an efficient market where the market price is an unbiased estimate of the true value of the investment, but is not necessarily a correct one at any point in time.35

It is easy to see how non-stationarity may play a role in the results of future event studies on proxy access. At this time, the stock market has zero practical experience with proxy access. Investors have yet to use proxy access to nominate candidates for the Board. Therefore, there is no data to evaluate how the performances of those nominees who have been elected to the Board have affected shareholder value. As a result, it is possible that as the market becomes more informed about the real value of proxy access, future event studies, including studies on the value of shareholder proposals on proxy access, may provide different results based on changed perceptions.36

To overcome the perception that the Bhandari report may be tainted by the potential for non-stationarity, a number of event studies would need to be conducted on various event dates over a number of years. Hopefully, they will generate results that are consistent. Until then, the issue of non-stationarity will need to be acknowledged by those who utilize the Bhandari report.

V. Conclusion

The Bhandari report is an important first step in the process of trying to understand the value of proxy access based on shareholder proposals. However, even though the authors appear to have done the best job possible with a limited data set, it is not possible to use the report as support for the proposition that proxy access is an enhancement to the corporate governance of a public company, either generally or at a targeted company. More specifically, the results of the report lack external validity resulting from a sample that is not randomly generated; there is the strong possibility of omitted error bias; and the issue of non-stationarity limits the significance of the results.

  1. For a legal history of proxy access, see Bernard S. Sharfman, What Theory and the Empirical Evidence Tell Us about Proxy Access, 12 J.L. Econ. & Pol’y (forthcoming 2016).
  2. 17 C.F.R. §240.14a-8(i)(8) (2011).
  3. 17 C.F.R. §240.14a-8(d) (2011).
  4. Sidley Austin LLP, Proxy Access Update – Momentum Continues to Build in 2016 4 (2016),–september-22-2016.pdf.
  5. Universal proxy access would automatically allow certain privileged shareholders to place their Board nominees into the proxy solicitation materials of almost all public companies without the need for a charter amendment or bylaw. The SEC adopted a universal proxy access rule that was to become effective on November 15, 2010. Prior to it being implemented, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously decided to vacate the rule after determining that the SEC had promulgated the rule in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act’s “arbitrary and capricious” standard of review. See Sharfman, supra note 1, at 18.
  6. Tara Bhandari, et al., Public versus Private Provision of Governance: The Case of Proxy Access, (SEC Staff Working Paper, 2015), For a review of empirical studies on universal proxy access, see Sharfman, supra note 1.
  7. Illievy and Kalodimos are no longer with the SEC.
  8. Roberta Romano, Less is More: Making Shareholder Activism a Valuable Mechanism of Corporate Governance, 18 Yale J. on Reg. 174, 187 n.37 (2001).
  9. Press Release, Office of the New York City Comptroller, Comptroller Stringer, NYC Pension Funds Launch National Campaign to Give Shareowners a True Voice in How Corporate Boards Are Elected (Nov. 6, 2014),
  10. S.V.D. Nageswara Rao and Sreejith U, Event Study Methodology: A Critical Review, 3(1)A The Macrotheme Rev. 40, 44 (Spring 2014).
  11. S. P Khotari & Jerold B. Warner, Chapter 1 – Econometrics of Event Studies, in Handbook of Empirical Corporate Finance 3 (B. Espen Eckbo ed., 2007).
  12. Five firms were removed from the sample because they had made earnings announcements on that day.
  13. The Bhandari report was not exclusively focused on the Comptroller’s announcement. In total, it evaluated 158 proxy access proposals, including the Comptroller’s 75 proposals, at 133 firms over four proxy seasons. Bhandari, supra note 6, at 14.
  14. The stay date was October 4, 2010. See Bhandari, supra note 6, at 11.
  15. Bhandari, supra note 6, at 19.
  16. Sumberg, supra note 9.
  17. Bhandari, supra note 6, at 43, tbl. 3.
  18. Sharfman, supra note 1, at 15.
  19. Jena McGregor, ExxonMobil Shareholders Just Approved a Powerful New Measure That Could Reshape investors’ Influence on Company Boards, Wash. Post, May 25, 2016,
  20. Sumberg, supra note 9.
  21. Aswath Damodaran, Investment Valuation: Tools and Techniques for Determining the Value of Any Asset 121 (3d ed. 2012) (When a sample is “random, this does limited damage to the results of the study. If the choice is biased, it can provide results which are not true in the larger universe.”).
  22. Bernard S. Sharfman, Activist Hedge Funds in a World of Board Independence: Creators or Destroyers of Long-Term Value?, 2015 Colum. Bus. L. Rev. 813, 825 (2015).
  23. Bhandari, supra note 6, at 28.
  24. Id. at 15 (“We control for industry in all of our tests.”).
  25. Henry G. Manne, Mergers and the Market for Corporate Control, 73 J. Pol. Econ. 110 (1965).
  26. See generally Brian R. Cheffins & John Armour, The Past, Present, and Future of Shareholder Activism by Hedge Funds, 37 J. Corp. L. 51, 58 (2011); Paul Rose & Bernard S. Sharfman, Shareholder Activism as a Corrective Mechanism in Corporate Governance, 2014 BYU L. Rev. 1014 (2015).
  27. Craig Doidge et al., The U.S. Listing Gap 5 (Nat’l Bureau of Econ. Research, Working Paper No. 21181, 2015).
  28. Shane Goodwin, Myopic Investor Myth Debunked: The Long-Term Efficacy of Shareholder Advocacy in the Boardroom 51, tbl. 1 (Harvard Bus. Sch., Working Paper, 2014),
  29. Id. at 52.
  30. See Damien Park, How Activist Investors Identify Their Targets, Director Notes (Conference Bd., N.Y.), June 2016, at 3, fig. 3.
  31. See generally Bernard S. Sharfman, A Theory of Shareholder Activism and its Place in Corporate Law, 82 Tenn. L. Rev. 791 (2015); Bernard S. Sharfman, The Tension Between Hedge Fund Activism and Corporate Law, J.L. Econ. & Pol’y (forthcoming 2016), (exploring the connections between proxy access proposals and market perception).
  32. See, e.g., Lucian A. Bebchuk et al., The Long-Term Effects of Hedge Fund Activism, 115 Colum. L. Rev. 1085 (2015); Nicole M. Boyson & Robert M. Mooradian, Corporate Governance and Hedge Fund Activism, 14 Rev. Derivatives Res. 169, 175–78, 201 (2011); Alon Brav et al., Hedge Fund Activism, Corporate Governance, and Firm Performance, 63 J. Fin. 1729, 1731 (2008); Christopher P. Clifford, Value Creation or Destruction? Hedge Funds as Shareholder Activists, 14 J. Corp. Fin. 323, 324 (2008); Robin M. Greenwood & Michael Schor, Investor Activism and Takeovers, 92 J. Fin. Econ. 362, 374 (2009); April Klein & Emanuel Zur, Entrepreneurial Shareholder Activism: Hedge Funds and Other Private Investors, 64 J. Fin. 187, 217–18 (2009).
  33. See Rao & Sreejith U, supra note 10.
  34. Id.
  35. See Damodaran, supra note 21, at 112.
  36. See Yaniv Konchitchki & Daniel E. O’Leary, Event Study Methodologies in Information Systems Research, 12 Int’l J. of Acct. Info. Systems 99, 108 (2011).