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Since the enactment of the first federal securities statute in 1933, securities law has illustrated key shifts in the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence. During the New Deal, the Court’s securities law decisions shifted almost overnight from open hostility toward the newly-expanded administrative state to broad deference to agency expertise. In the 1940s, securities cases helped build the legal foundation for a broadly enabling administrative law. The 1960s saw the Warren Court creating new implied rights of action in securities law illustrative of the Court’s approach to statutes generally. The stage seemed set for the rise of “federal corporate law.” The Court swiftly reversed itself, however, with Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr. leading the effort to confine the reach of the securities laws. Powell succeeded in imposing a strict constructionism in securities law that never quite took hold in criminal or constitutional law. When there was a significant shift for the Court, securities law was prominent—at least until Powell’s retirement. Since then, the Court has meandered in its approach to securities law, its decisions neither expansive nor restrictive. The Court’s docket in this space has become a random walk of indifference.
What is the future of securities law in the Supreme Court? We doubt that securities law’s bellwether status during its early days is likely to recur. The Securities and Exchange Commission, a groundbreaking agency of the 1930s, now seems like a small cog in a much larger administrative machine. Without prompting from the SEC, it is quite possible that the Court will continue to meander in the field of securities law. The Court— which Franklin Delano Roosevelt populated with appointees having front-line experience writing the securities statutes, running the SEC, or defending the constitutionality of the securities laws—has not had a member with any direct experience with securities law for more than thirty years.
If the Court’s spotlight were to shine again on securities, we suggest it might well be a Chevron question of the SEC’s authority. Proponents of corporate social responsibility could push the boundaries of the securities laws beyond the SEC’s historical focus on disclosure. Such a move could also be met by a federalism challenge to securities law preempting the field of state corporate law. These possibilities might once again put securities law at the center of the Court’s work to develop the law of the administrative state.
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