“A new breed of judicial activist” on the D.C. Circuit

With public attention now focused on the selection of a new Supreme Court Justice, it might be easy to forget the federal judicial appointments that get a lot less press, but which can also make a whole lot of difference in the lives of ordinary people.

Steven Pearlstein, a business columnist for the Washington Post, wrote a great column this morning—just before the news of Justice Stevens’ retirement broke—about how the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has been instrumental in slowing down or stopping altogether important regulations of drug companies, mutual funds, telecommunications providers, and other industries.

There's a lot of talk these days about how Washington has become dysfunctional. While most of the focus has been on Congress, the inability to perform even basic functions also extends to the agencies that are charged with protecting workers, consumers and investors. Unfortunately, it often takes a global financial crisis or a deadly coal mine explosion to remind us of the serious consequences of regulatory failure.

Much of the blame belongs with regulators who have been captured by the industries they are meant to oversee or have been swept up in the general political drift toward deregulation. But, as we were reminded by a case this week involving the Federal Communications Commission, another big culprit is the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which over the past decade has intimidated, undermined and demoralized the regulatory apparatus.

Pearlstein singles out conservative judges whose regulatory reluctance has kept the Food and Drug Administration for ensuring the speedy availability of generic drugs, and the Federal Trade Commission from disciplining a tech company monopolist.

These cases, Pearlstein writes, “are the means by which a new breed of judicial activist is quietly undermining the reach and the effectiveness of government.”

The leaders of this new breed were, unsurprisingly, nominated by former Presidents George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. Yet another reminder that judicial nominations at all levels make up one of any president’s most enduring legacies.
 

PFAW