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06/13/2017

Textualism from Justice Gorsuch
Michael Ramsey

Justice Gorsuch's first opinion (for a unanimous Court in Henson v. Santander Consumer USAis (no surprise)  intensely textualist, reaching the sort of obvious conclusion that an attempt to collect a debt someone owes to me is not an attempt to collect a "debt owed or due to another."   Here is the key passage for textualism -- after an extensive focus on the text:

Faced with so many obstacles in the text and structure of the Act, petitioners ask us to move quickly on to policy. Indeed, from the beginning that is the field on which they seem most eager to pitch battle. Petitioners assert that Congress passed the Act in large measure to add new incentives for independent debt collectors to treat consumers well. In their view, Congress excluded loan originators from the Act’s demands because it thought they already faced sufficient economic and legal incentives to good behavior. But, on petitioners’ account, Congress never had the chance to consider what should be done about those in the business of purchasing defaulted debt. That’s because, petitioners tell us, the “advent” of the market for defaulted debt represents “ ‘one of the most significant changes’” to the debt market generally since the Act’s passage in 1977. Brief for Petitioners 8 (quoting Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Fair Debt Collection Practices Act: CFPB Annual Report 2014, p. 7 (2014)). Had Congress known this new industry would blossom, they say, it surely would have judged defaulted debt purchasers more like (and in need of the same special rules as) independent debt collectors. Indeed, petitioners contend that no other result would be consistent with the overarching congressional goal of deterring untoward debt collection practices.

All this seems to us quite a lot of speculation. And while it is of course our job to apply faithfully the law Congress has written, it is never our job to rewrite a constitutionally valid statutory text under the banner of speculation about what Congress might have done had it faced a question that, on everyone’s account, it never faced. See Magwood v. Patterson, 561 U. S. 320, 334 (2010) (“We cannot replace the actual text with speculation as to Congress’ intent”). Indeed, it is quite mistaken to assume, as petitioners would have us, that “whatever” might appear to “further[ ] the statute’s primary objective must be the law.” Rodriguez v. United States, 480 U. S. 522, 526 (1987) (per curiam) (emphasis deleted). Legislation is, after all, the art of compromise, the limitations expressed in statutory terms often the price of passage, and no statute yet known “pursues its [stated] purpose[ ] at all costs.” Id., at 525–526. For these reasons and more besides we will not presume with petitioners that any result consistent with their account of the statute’s overarching goal must be the law but will presume more modestly instead “that [the] legislature says . . . what it means and means . . . what it says.” Dodd v. United States, 545 U. S. 353, 357 (2005) (internal quotation marks omitted; brackets in original).

Even taken on its own terms, too, the speculation petitioners urge upon us is far from unassailable. After all, is it really impossible to imagine that reasonable legislators might contend both ways on the question whether defaulted debt purchasers should be treated more like loan originators than independent debt collection agencies? About whether other existing incentives (in the form of common law duties, other statutory and regulatory obligations, economic incentives, or otherwise) suffice to deter debt purchasers from engaging in certain undesirable collection activities? Couldn’t a reasonable legislator endorsing the Act as written wonder whether a large financial institution like Santander is any more or less likely to engage in abusive conduct than another large financial institution like CitiFinancial Auto? Especially where (as here) the institution says that its primary business is loan origination and not the purchase of defaulted debt? We do not profess sure answers to any of these questions, but observe only that the parties and their amici manage to present many and colorable arguments both ways on them all, a fact that suggests to us for certain but one thing: that these are matters for Congress, not this Court, to resolve.

In the end, reasonable people can disagree with how Congress balanced the various social costs and benefits in this area. We have no difficulty imagining, for example, a statute that applies the Act’s demands to anyone collecting any debts, anyone collecting debts originated by another, or to some other class of persons still. Neither do we doubt that the evolution of the debt collection business might invite reasonable disagreements on whether Congress should reenter the field and alter the judgments it made in the past. After all, it’s hardly unknown for new business models to emerge in response to regulation, and for regulation in turn to address new business models. Constant competition between constable and quarry, regulator and regulated, can come as no surprise in our changing world. But neither should the proper role of the judiciary in that process—to apply, not amend, the work of the People’s representatives.

Justice Scalia couldn't have said it better and wouldn't have said it differently.