Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Andrew Cuomo Out-Spitzers Eliot Spitzer

Long before he disgraced himself as Client 9, Eliot Spitzer made a name for himself as a result of his aggressive role as New York Attorney General in investigating and prosecuting corporate misdeeds. Some conservatives complained that Spitzer, in tackling issues of national moment, was overstepping his authority. Progressives responded--rightly in my view--that there is concurrent jurisdiction between state and federal authorities for many of the sorts of actions that Spitzer was targeting. Federal securities laws operate on top of state corporate law, and so Spitzer was acting within his rights in taking actions designed to protect the shareholders of corporations that did substantial business in New York State. Somewhat more controversially, it was sometimes suggested that lax oversight by the SEC and the Bush Administration warranted Spitzer's efforts to fill the regulatory void. That was a more controversial defense because it suggested that Spitzer was using his state powers pretextually to address national issues.

Now comes Spitzer's successor, NY State AG Andrew Cuomo, who has been investigating the AIG bonuses. That investigation has already yielded substantial rewards. The latest statement from AG Cuomo reports: "So far, 9 of the top 10 bonus recipients have agreed to give the bonuses back. Of the top 20, 15 have agreed to return the bonuses."

I have little doubt that the NY State AG has the technical authority to investigate AIG. It's based in NY State and shareholders in AIG could complain about breaches of fiduciary duty (a matter of state corporate law) if the bonuses were improperly paid. And yet the use of the state AG's authority looks quite pretextual here. Indeed, AG Cuomo's statement tellingly refers to the giveback of the bonuses as "what this country now needs and demands"--not what NY State needs and demands. As everyone knows, if there is a problem with the bonuses, it is that they use federal taxpayer funds to reward people who performed badly.

Our constitutional law permits the federal government to use its power over interstate commerce to accomplish ends--such as forbidding various forms of discrimination--that are not strictly economic or commercial in nature. Notwithstanding language in early cases prohibiting the federal government from using its powers pretextually, there is effectively no such limit on the modern exercise of federal powers. So why not have the same approach to state powers?

One plausible answer would be that the states and the federal government are dissimilarly situated. The federal government is representative of the whole country, including all of the states in which federal law operates, whereas a state AG using state power to accomplish national ends does appear to be acting beyond his jurisdiction. But if that's so, then it seems that the right answer is for Congress to pre-empt the forbidden state regulatory activities rather than for courts to attempt to develop a jurisprudence that forbids state pretextual regulation, which, in practice, will likely prove very difficult to identify.

So the bottom line is that AG Cuomo may well be acting in a national capacity, but until the feds tell him to cut it out, that's his prerogative.

Posted by Mike Dorf

11 comments:

AF said...

I am missing the pretext here.

As you state, if the bonuses were illegal, they were illegal under state law. The AG's job is to enforce state law.

If, on the other hand, the bonuses are not illegal, then the problem is not pretext, but rather the lack of any legal basis for the investigation.

Michael C. Dorf said...

AF: Many things are illegal under state law but routinely go unprosecuted and uninvestigated. For example, it's illegal to pay a nanny but fail to withhold state income tax on her or his salary. If the state AG's office decided to investigate and/or prosecute the AG's political enemies for failure to withhold household employee taxes, when the real reason they were targeted was their support of a rival politician, that would be a pretextual investigation and/or prosecution based on actual violations of state law.

AF said...

Professor Dorf: Understood, but I didn't take you to mean that Cuomo's investigation is pretextual in the sense of being a malicious prosecution for purely personal or partisan reasons.

Rather, your suggestion was that it was pretextual because the interests involved are federal. But state governments regularly enforce state laws that protect out-of-state entities doing business in the state. Spitzer's investigations, for example, were of companies with substantial numbers of out-of-state shareholders.

In terms of the state interest in enforcing its laws, the AIG investigation is analagous to any other investigation of a large corporation by a state AG.

If this investigation is overreaching, it is because the legal theories are aggressive, not because the beneficiaries are federal taxpayers.

Michael C. Dorf said...

AF: We may now be having a semantic disagreement over the meaning of "pretext." I agree that state AGs have as part of their legitimate charge the protection of out-of-state parties, including shareholders. What I'm suggesting here is that the ONLY reason that AG Cuomo cares about investigating AIG is because federal money has been (in the view of many) misspent, and that protecting the federal fisc as such is not ordinarily a task of a state AG.

Sobek said...

This isn't a case where Congress was totally silent on the issue, thus leaving enforcement up to Cuomo. Congress specifically authorized the bonuses. So did the President. This is not a case of generally lax federal enforcement, but of specific federal intervention.

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