Department of Labor’s Fiduciary Rule Is Vulnerable on First Amendment Grounds

DOLPromulgated in April 2016, the Department of Labor’s (DOL) highly controversial Fiduciary Rule drastically expands the universe of retirement investment advisors and employees who are deemed to be “fiduciaries” under federal law. Abandoning 40 years of settled statutory interpretation of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) and parallel provisions of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC), DOL now maintains that a fiduciary is anyone who provides “recommendations” that are individualized or directed to a specific recipient for consideration in making investment or management decisions with respect to securities or other property of an ERISA plan or an IRA. Continue reading

FEDERAL REGULATORY READING LIST: Resources for New Leaders at EPA and FWS

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US-FishAndWildlifeService-Logo.svg*Note: This is the fourth in a series of posts compiling Washington Legal Foundation papers, briefs, regulatory comments, and blog commentaries relevant to critical legal and constitutional issues facing new senior leaders at specific federal agencies. To read posts addressing other federal agencies, click here.

Few agencies have been more active in the past eight years than the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). With its singular, near-myopic focus on combatting climate change, EPA has issued a series of regulations that not only threaten to raise energy costs dramatically, but have already cost tens of thousands of Americans their livelihoods. Similarly, the Department of Interior’s Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) has continued to expand the scope of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), among other federal laws, in ways that fail to strike a proper balance between safeguarding ecological health and respecting private property rights and other individual and business civil liberties.

Through its public-interest litigation, publications, and other advocacy, WLF has influenced debates over many EPA and FWS policies and actions with timely papers and blog commentaries, and weighed in directly through regulatory comments and amicus briefs. Those activities have resulted in an impressive body of reference materials that are instructive for new leadership in the two agencies. Below we provide a summary of and links to those documents to simplify access to relevant WLF work product in specific areas. Continue reading

Are Anti-SLAPP Statutes Toothless in Federal Courts?

cnnAs the Internet increasingly has become the dominant means of conveying both facts and opinions, the number of defamation and other speech-related lawsuits filed in state and federal courts has risen markedly. Responding to what some lawmakers characterize as “strategic lawsuits against public participation” (SLAPP)—suits aimed at suppressing legitimate speech or public debate through imposing the financial burdens of litigation—many states have enacted so-called anti-SLAPP statutes. One characteristic feature of all anti-SLAPP statutes is that they provide an expedited mechanism whereby a defendant can have a qualifying SLAPP suit dismissed quickly. Continue reading

Kudos to Colorado AG for Rebuking Boulder County on Its Fracking Moratorium

coloradoagIn the last several years, municipal and county governments have thrust themselves into some of the nation’s most contentious legal-policy debates by imposing regulatory mandates and restrictions on business conduct. New York City famously tried to shrink soda serving sizes. San Francisco has dictated that ads for “sugary drinks” include health warnings. Philadelphia has prohibited businesses from asking job applicants about their salary history. And numerous cities and counties have enacted restrictions or bans on oil and natural gas extraction from shale plays within their borders.

That last type of local regulation has instigated many battles between city or county government and state lawmakers. The latest fight—between the State of Colorado and the County of Boulder—is about to come to a head. In a January 26 letter sent to Boulder County’s three commissioners, Colorado Attorney General Cynthia H. Coffman has given the county until Friday, February 10 to rescind its “moratorium” on accepting new applications for oil and gas development. If the county fails to act, Attorney General Coffman has pledged to file suit. Continue reading

EPA Fracking Report Deliberately Ignores Key Studies to Embrace Inconclusive Results

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*Grace Galvin, a Communications Associate at WLF who received her JD from Charleston School of Law and is pursuing a Master’s in Journalism and Public Affairs at American University, contributed significantly to this post.

“A blessing” is the description Franklin Bess used to convey his feelings toward the oil and natural gas industry, as long as the drilling is American-based. He and his wife, Katie Bess, are the proud owners of The Williamson Ranch in west Texas, land that has been in Katie’s family for five generations.

In an interview with Ezra Levant, a Canadian broadcaster and “ethical oil” advocate, the Bess family expressed relief in April 2015 when an oil-and-gas exploration and production company bought their expiring lease with Tall City Exploration. This sale has provided the income necessary to allow the Bess family to maintain the ranching life—a rarity today—and pass their land on to future generations.

Many ranching families near Big Spring, Texas have similar stories, and they have the Permian Basin shale that lies beneath their town, and the use of such extraction techniques as hydraulic fracturing, to thank for their livelihoods. Unfortunately, environmental activists, with the help of the federal government, have generated a narrative that paints hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” as a destructive and offensive process. Continue reading

Proposed FCC Privacy Rule Takes Unauthorized Aim at ISPs and the First Amendment

FCC*Jared McClain, WLF staff attorney, contributed to this post.

On March 31, 2016, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) purporting to bring “clarity, choice, and security” to the broadband industry. In the name of accomplishing those seemingly worthwhile and innocuous goals, the Commission released a 147-page document that details a complex scheme to curtail Internet Service Providers’ (ISPs) right to use the data they lawfully collect on customer behavior. WLF filed comments last week laying out a number of commonsense, statutory, and constitutional arguments against the Proposed Rule in its current form. Continue reading

Justice Thomas’s Denial-of-Review Dissent in Judicial Deference Case Embraced View of WLF’s Amicus Brief

supreme courtForcefully dissenting from the Supreme Court’s denial of certiorari this week in United Student Aid Funds v. Bible, Justice Clarence Thomas repeated his clarion call to overturn Auer/Seminole Rock deference. That doctrine requires reviewing courts to give an agency’s interpretation of its own regulatory rules controlling weight, so long as that interpretation is not “plainly erroneous.”

WLF filed an amicus brief in the case urging certiorari. WLF’s brief, joined by Professor Philip Hamburger of Columbia University Law School, argued that by requiring judges to reflexively defer to the legal interpretations of federal bureaucrats in administrative agencies, Auer asks jurists to abandon their Article III duty of independent judgment. Even worse, we contended, when the agency to which a court must defer under Auer is a party to the litigation, Auer undermines the rule of law by creating a systematic bias in favor of the federal government in violation of due process of law.

Justice Thomas echoed similar concerns in his dissent, criticizing what he viewed as a “metastasized” deference doctrine “on its last gasp”:

More broadly, by deferring to an agency’s litigating position under the guise of Seminole Rock, courts force regulated entities like petitioner here to ‘divine the agency’s interpretations in advance,’ lest they ‘be held liable when the agency announces its interpretations for the first time’ in litigation. Christopher, supra, at ___ (slip op., at 14). By enabling an agency to enact ‘vague rules’ and then to invoke Seminole Rock to ‘do what it pleases’ in later litigation, the agency (with the judicial branch as its co-conspirator) ‘frustrates the notice and predictability purposes of rulemaking, and promotes arbitrary government.’ Talk America, Inc., supra, at 69 (Scalia, J., concurring).

Over the past few years, Justices Alito and Roberts, as well as the late Justice Scalia, leveled similar criticisms at Auer deference. Here’s hoping that Justice Thomas’s jeremiad does not fall on deaf ears when a ninth justice is ultimately confirmed to the high court.