National Petroleum Refiners v FTC: A Tale of Two Opinions

Corbin K. Barthold —  27 April 2022 — 1 Comment

[This guest post from Corbin K. Barthold of TechFreedomthe fourth post in our FTC UMC Rulemaking symposium—is adapted from his and Berin Szoka’s chapter “The Constitutional Revolution That Wasn’t: Why the FTC Isn’t a Second National Legislature,” in the forthcoming book FTC’s Rulemaking Authority, which will be published by Concurrences later this year. It is the second of two contributions to the symposium posted today, along with this related post from Yale Law School student Leah Samuel. You can find other posts at the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]

In 1972, a case came before the Hon. Aubrey E. Robinson, Jr., a federal trial judge in the District of Columbia, involving the scope of the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) regulatory authority. Section 5(a)(1) of the Federal Trade Commission Act outlaws “unfair methods of competition.” Section 6(g) says that the FTC may “make rules and regulations for the purposes of carrying out” the FTC Act.

What is a “rule or regulation” that helps “carry out” a statute? Does Section 6(g) simply permit the FTC to make “procedural” or “housekeeping” rules that set forth how the agency will conduct itself? Or does it instead empower the FTC to make “substantive” or “legislative” rules—precepts, binding on the public, that flesh out which methods of competition are “unfair”? This was the question before Judge Robinson.

If this question interests you, Robinson’s decision in National Petroleum Refiners v. FTC will repay close study.

Robinson kept his eye squarely on the FTC Act’s text and structure. What stood out to him, when he examined the statute, is the glaring structural distinction between Section 5 and Section 6. Section 5 enables the agency to file complaints, hold hearings, make findings of fact, and issue cease-and-desist orders. Section 6 permits the agency to gather and publish information about corporate practices. Each section is closely concerned with its assigned topic: Section 5 explains, in detail, how the FTC shall exercise quasi-judicial powers; Section 6 explains, in detail, how the FTC shall exercise investigative powers. The two sections have little to say to each other. This, concluded Robinson, was a strong signal that Section 6(g) does not leap its fence, progress to Section 5(a)(1), and enable the creation of rules that define “unfair methods of competition.”

That was just the beginning. Why would Congress pair a vague and open-ended rulemaking power with an elaborate and strictly circumscribed quasi-judicial power? If the FTC could make whole categories of conduct unlawful by diktat, why would it endure the rigmarole of Section 5 adjudication? More to the point, why would Congress bother to spell out that process, knowing that the FTC would go around it? In full, moreover, Section 6(g) gives the FTC the power “[f]rom time to time to classify corporations and to make rules and regulations for the purposes of carrying out the provisions of [the Act].” What is the part about “classify[ing]” companies doing there? Read as a whole, Section 6(g) seems merely to equip the FTC to conduct investigations, including, as Robinson put it, by ensuring that the agency has “the power to require reports from all corporations.”

Nor did the clues end there. Other statutes expressly grant the FTC the power to issue discrete consumer-protection rules, such as rules governing the labels of wool products. Congress knew how to grant legislative rulemaking power when it wanted to do so. And the limited grants of such power, in the other statutes, would be superfluous if the FTC already possessed a general “unfair methods” rulemaking authority in Section 6(g).

(Although Robinson did not mention it, a further sign of Section 6(g)’s narrow scope is the absence of statutory penalties for violating an FTC-issued rule. In the era when the FTC Act was passed, Congress never granted the power to make substantive rules without also specifying the price of noncompliance.)

In short, the FTC Act’s text and structure show that Section 6(g) has no intention of helping Section 5(a)(1). And when he checked his work against the FTC Act’s legislative history, Robinson found out why that is so. Section 6(g), he discovered, was originally in a House bill “that conferred only investigative powers on the Commission.” A competing bill in the Senate, meanwhile, contained quasi-judicial powers and the “unfair methods” standard but “made no provision whatever for the promulgation of rules and regulations in any context.” The investigations-only House bill and the no-rulemaking-power Senate bill were eventually stitched together. No wonder Section 6(g) does not seem to support the creation of legislative rules about the meaning of Section 5(a)(1); the two provisions were born into different bills.

If more support were needed, added Robinson, the FTC’s conduct would provide it. It had taken the FTC 50 years to “notice” a vast store of authority hiding in Section 6(g)—yet another revealing indication, Robinson wrote, “that the FTC knew it was not originally granted this rulemaking authority.” Over the years, the agency had even “repeatedly admitted that it has no power to promulgate substantive rules of law.”

Life is not fair. Judge Robinson’s well-crafted order is not good law. It was reversed. And in its place stands an appellate opinion that is longer, more repetitive, less rigorous, less disciplined, and altogether less convincing than the decision it overturns.

“Our duty,” U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit Judge J. Skelly Wright pronounced at the outset of his 1973 opinion in National Petroleum Refiners v. FTC, “is not simply to make a policy judgment.” The FTC, after all, “is a creation of Congress, not a creation of judges’ contemporary notions of what is wise policy.” He might then have said: We therefore adopt the careful opinion of Judge Robinson as our own—affirmed.

He did not say that. In opening with a pious renunciation of judicial policymaking, in fact, he protested too much.

Wright’s treatment of the FTC Act’s text is brusque and general. Construing Section 6(g) to allow substantive rulemaking, Wright submitted, would “not in any formal sense circumvent” the quasi-judicial enforcement mechanism of Section 5. Congress, he went on, had not explicitly told the FTC it could only proceed case-by-case. He then discussed a pair of Supreme Court cases that, though concededly not on point, suggest the FTC Act should be read “broad[ly]” and as a “whole.” And he recited Section 6(g) itself, as though its support for his position were self-evident.

This casual nod to text complete, Wright moved on to his true preoccupation—policy considerations. Over and over, he praised the “invaluable resource-saving flexibility” of rulemaking. According to Wright:

  • “[U]se of substantive rule-making is increasingly felt to yield significant benefits. … Increasingly, courts are recognizing that use of rule-making to make innovations in agency policy may actually be fairer to regulated parties than total reliance on case-by-case adjudication.”
  • “[C]ontemporary considerations of practicality and fairness … certainly support the Commission’s position here.”
  • “Such benefits are especially obvious in cases involving the initiation of rules of the sort the FTC has promulgated here.”
  • “[T]he policy innovation involved in this case underscores the need for increased reliance on rule-making rather than adjudication alone.”
  • “[The FTC] has remained hobbled in its task by the delay inherent in repetitious, lengthy litigation[.] … To the extent substantive rule-making … is likely to deal with these problems … [it] should be upheld as [allowed under the FTC Act].”
  • “[T]he Commission will be able to proceed more expeditiously, … and … more efficiently with a mixed system of rule-making and adjudication[.]”
  • “[C]ourts have stressed the advantages of efficiency and expedition which inhere in reliance on rule-making instead of adjudication alone.”

So much for eschewing “judges’ contemporary notions of what is wise policy”! Rulemaking was the wave of the future, as all fashionable and enlightened judges understood. Wright seemed to believe, therefore, that he should insert into the FTC Act the power to make substantive rules. Whether the helpless text could bear such a reading was a secondary concern at best.

When not providing his personal endorsement of the benefits of rulemaking, Wright repeatedly invoked the FTC Act’s “purpose”:

  • “[R]ejecting the claim of rule-making power would run counter to the broad policies … that clearly motivated Congress in 1914.”
  • “[T]he broad, undisputed policies which clearly motivated the framers of the [FTC] Act of 1914 would indeed be furthered by our view[.]”
  • “[R]ule-making is not only consistent with the original framers’ broad purposes, but appears to be a particularly apt means of carrying them out.”
  • The FTC needs rulemaking power “to do the job assigned by Congress.”

But a judge may not appeal to a statute’s “purpose” on the false cry that he is divining what the legislators “really” meant. The Supreme Court in more recent years has explained that “no legislation pursues its purposes at all costs,” and that “it frustrates rather than effectuates legislative intent simplistically to assume that whatever furthers the statute’s primary objective must be the law.”The missing ingredient in Wright’s long document—what should have been the main ingredient—is obedience to the statutory text and structure.

Wright’s opinion in National Petroleum Refiners is a museum piece. It is a fossilized remnant of an extinct species of statutory interpretation. For a court trying to understand the FTC Act today, it is next to useless. Judges may not let their rulings be driven by their sense of “policy,” by their intuitions about statutory “purpose,” or by their desire for a personally satisfying result. The Supreme Court has shut the door on these factors. The judiciary possesses “no roving license,” it has said, to rewrite a statute on the assumption that “Congress ‘must have intended’ something broader.” Judges are “expounders of what the law is,” not “policymakers choosing what the law should be.”

Corbin K. Barthold

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Corbin K. Barthold is internet policy counsel at TechFreedom.

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