Today’s post is from Russ Ryan (Partner, King & Spalding).  Prior to joining King & Spalding, Ryan spent ten years in the SEC’s Division of Enforcement, including his last three years as Assistant Director of the Division.

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Professor Koehler has already ably analyzed (see here) the Supreme Court’s recent statute of limitations decision against the SEC in Gabelli.  The Court’s opinion obviously was limited to the precise statute of limitations question before it, but I view it – perhaps with a generous helping of wishful thinking – as an encouraging sign that the justices may be ready, willing, and able to take on other troubling issues that arise as federal law enforcement agencies continue to blur the lines between traditional criminal prosecution and increasingly punitive “civil” prosecution.

SEC enforcement is a classic example of such civil prosecution.  And, in a nod to the primary focus of this website, SEC enforcement of FCPA violations comes perhaps closest to the bull’s eye, because in nearly all cases the SEC works side-by-side with criminal prosecutors in investigating and announcing its own civil cases.

So why is Gabelli so encouraging in this regard?  For starters, the Court’s unanimous opinion explicitly rejected the notion that the SEC should be treated like a private plaintiff when it sues people in its law enforcement capacity.  To the contrary, the opinion correctly notes that when the SEC accuses private businesses and citizens of breaking the law, and seeks government-imposed punishment for those violations, the SEC is “a different kind of plaintiff” seeking “a different kind of relief.”

Specifically, the SEC’s role is much closer to that of a traditional criminal prosecutor than that of an injured shareholder seeking compensation for investment losses.  At one point, in fact, the Court explicitly characterized the SEC’s role in Gabelli as “a prosecutor seeking penalties.”

This recognition – which was long overdue – logically invites much broader questions than simply the starting gun for the SEC’s statute of limitations.  If the SEC’s enforcement role is more like that of a criminal prosecutor than a private plaintiff, why shouldn’t the SEC be held to some of the same procedural and evidentiary burdens of a prosecutor rather than benefitting from the more relaxed standards accorded to private plaintiffs?

For example, why should the SEC be able to prosecute and punish private citizens under the relatively forgiving “preponderance of evidence” burden of proof rather than “guilt beyond reasonable doubt” – or at least “clear and convincing evidence”?  As Justice Scalia pointed out in his questioning of the government’s lawyer during oral argument in Gabelli, “You just call it a civil penalty and you don’t have to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Why too should the SEC be entitled to infer guilt from a defendant’s exercise of his or her constitutional right to remain silent, or to hammer that adverse inference home before the judge and jury deciding the case?  And why should the SEC be entitled to seek additional law enforcement penalties even after the defendant has already been punished in a parallel federal criminal case involving the same offense?   Finally, why shouldn’t an accused securities law violator facing a government law enforcement prosecution – even if nominally civil – have an absolute right to the assistance of competent counsel, paid for by the government if the defendant can’t afford it?

The Supreme Court didn’t have to address these questions in Gabelli, and for the most part lower courts have generally sided with the SEC whenever such questions have arisen.  But I’m not sure the SEC will have compelling answers to these questions if they should ever reach the Supreme Court.  And given the Supreme Court’s decisive rejection of the SEC’s position in Gabelli – unanimously, less than two months after oral argument, and requiring only a 11-page opinion – those answers may not come easy for the SEC.