Justice Gorsuch’s First SCOTUS Opinion Is Super Boring

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Kevin Daley Supreme Court correspondent
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Justice Neil Gorsuch’s first opinion for the Supreme Court was crisp, plainspoken, and unanimous.

The high court issued its ruling Monday in Henson v. Santander Consumer USA Inc., Monday, a fairly straightforward case about the scope of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), which proscribes collection standards for third parties pursuing debtors. In this case, however, Santander Consumer was not a “repo man” in the usual sense, as they owned the debt they were collecting from Henson.

“But what if you purchase a debt and then try to collect it for yourself— does that make you a ‘debt collector’ too?” Gorsuch asks. “That’s the nub of the dispute now before us.”

The controversy arose when Santander purchased defaulted auto loans and began collecting on the debts themselves. Consumer groups accused the company of violating the FDCPA, because their employees hounded debtors with aggressive tactics.

But as Gorsuch explains, the text of the law plainly applies only to third parties debt collectors, and not to individuals who own debt and use their own resources to recover assets.

“[T]he Act defines debt collectors to include those who regularly seek to collect debts ‘owed . . . another,'” he explained. “And by its plain terms this language seems to focus our attention on third party collection agents working for a debt owner — not on a debt owner seeking to collect debts for itself.”

The challengers went on to argue that Congress intended the law to apply to debt owners, as their primary concern was to police the act of collection practices, rather than make distinctions between collectors. But Gorsuch gently chided them for asking the Court to rewrite the law.

“[I]t’s hardly unknown for new business models to emerge in response to regulation, and for regulation in turn to address new business models,” he wrote. “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.”

Then Henson case could be the only opinion Gorsuch writes for the Court this term. He was confirmed in time to participate in the April sitting, which featured 14 arguments. Rulings have been issued in five of them.

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