Supreme Court agrees to hear challenge to consumer agency

The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear a legal challenge to the structure of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) in a major victory for critics of the powerful financial regulator.

The court on Friday announced it would take up the lawsuit Seila Law vs. CFPB. The case involves a law firm, Seila Law, that refused to comply with a CFPB request for documents.

The firm challenged the agency's structure as unconstitutional, arguing that the bureau’s director enjoys an illegal amount of independence from the president’s executive branch authority.

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The Trump administration and CFPB Director Kathy Kraninger have backed the challenge, which could transform or even dismantle the agency.

House Democrats urged the Supreme Court to reject Seila Law’s appeal for a ruling, insisting that Congress did not infringe on separation of powers.

The CFPB was created by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law to police the financial sector for consumer fraud and abuse. Dodd-Frank prevents the president for firing the CFPB director before his or her five-year term expires unless “for cause,” which is considered to be severe neglect or misconduct. 

Seila Law and the Trump administration argue that the “for cause” provision hinders the president’s constitutional authority over the executive branch. 

A district court ruled in favor of the CFPB and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that ruling, leading Seila Law to appeal to the Supreme Court. 

The Seila case is the first of several unsuccessful legal challenges to the CFPB to reach the Supreme Court, including cases pending appeals in the Fifth and Second Circuits. 

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled in 2016 that the controversial watchdog agency's structure was unconstitutional. But that decision, authored by current Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughPence calls for Roe v. Wade to be sent to 'ash heap of history' ahead of abortion ruling Supreme Court to hear landmark abortion case this week Roe redux: Is 'viability' still viable as a constitutional doctrine? MORE, was overturned by the full appeals court in 2018.

The CFPB’s liberal allies say the ascension of Kavanaugh and fellow conservative justice Neil GorsuchNeil GorsuchPence calls for Roe v. Wade to be sent to 'ash heap of history' ahead of abortion ruling Roe redux: Is 'viability' still viable as a constitutional doctrine? How religious liberty was distorted in the age of COVID-19 MORE to the Supreme Court poses an existential threat to the bureau’s existence. CFPB allies fear the court could rule the entire agency unconstitutional and shut it down.

But the court’s order taking up the case presented a potential salvation for the CFPB. The court asked the agency's defenders and Seila Law to argue whether the “for cause” provision can be severed from Dodd-Frank to eliminate an unconstitutional check on the president’s power.

The CFPB has been the center of a fierce partisan battle since its creation in Dodd-Frank. The agency was designed by Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenSenate GOP blocks defense bill, throwing it into limbo Restless progressives eye 2024 Poll: Harris, Michelle Obama lead for 2024 if Biden doesn't run MORE (D-Mass.), then an Obama adviser, to be a vigorous, independent check on banks, lenders, credit card companies and debt collectors.

The CFPB’s aggressive oversight and regulation under former director Richard Cordray (D) elated Democrats and financial sector critics while infuriating the industry and its GOP allies.

The bureau has since loosened its hold on the industry under Trump-appointed officials, and said it will not defend its structure in Supreme Court arguments. It’s unclear if the House Democratic caucus or CFPB private sector allies will defend the bureau in court. 

Updated at 3:45 p.m.