By Amanda Warner
Last week, some members of the House Financial Services Committee lavished praise on a piece of legislation they said would “restore due process rights to all Americans.”
“All the bill says is that if somebody wants their day in court, they should have their day in court,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.), explained, adding that “preserving the rights of Americans to defend themselves in a fair and impartial trial…is one of the most fundamental rights, and it is enshrined in our Constitution.”
Representative Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), Chair of the committee, championed the measure as well. “Every American deserves to be treated with due process,” Rep. Hensarling declared. “They ought to have the opportunity to have a trial by jury. They ought to be able to engage in full discovery. They ought to be subject to the rules of evidence.”
A listener might have thought these legislators were standing up against forced arbitration – “rip-off clauses” that big companies bury in the fine print of contracts to prevent people from suing them, even if they have broken the law.
Astoundingly and unfortunately, the legislators were actually moving in the opposite direction. They were extolling HR 3798, the so-called “Due Process Restoration Act,” which would extend special legal protections to Wall Street banks and other financial firms charged with violating federal securities law by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
This piece of legislation does nothing to restore due process to ripped-off consumers and investors. Instead, the “Due Process Restoration Act” makes it harder for the SEC to hold corporate wrongdoers accountable when they break the law.
Big banks and others charged in SEC hearings already possess several crucial legal protections that their investors and consumers lack in forced arbitration: robust opportunity for discovery, a public hearing, a trained adjudicator bound to make a ruling based in law, and – crucially – the right to two full appeal processes, including a review in federal court. Yet HR 3798 would make it harder for the SEC to prove its case and allow the accused party to unilaterally terminate the proceedings, forcing the SEC to either drop the charges or refile in federal court.
According to Professor Joseph Carcello of the University of Tennessee, giving companies this right to “choose the venue is unlikely to be in the best interest of society, and will almost certainly make it more difficult for the SEC to deter and punish securities law violations, including fraud.” Professor Carcello further emphasized that if fairness is a concern for members of the committee, then it is more unfair for citizens to be forced into arbitration in their contracts with financial institutions.
An amendment offered by Reps. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) threw the gap between the words and actions of HR 3798’s supporters into particularly stark relief. The amendment would have ensured that firms using forced arbitration against consumers and investors could not benefit from the bill’s special protections. Yet, in a display of staggering hypocrisy, this commonsense amendment was defeated on party lines.
Despite grandiose claims of due process, HR 3798 would only further tilt the playing field in favor of special corporate interests when it comes to battling financial fraud and corporate rip-offs. If lawmakers truly wish to “restore due process rights to all Americans,” they should pass legislation to ban forced arbitration and support the upcoming Consumer Financial Protection Bureau rulemaking on this abusive practice.
Wall Street firms and brokers accused of breaking federal law do not need special legal protections, but the right of ordinary Americans to have their day in court very much does need defending. Lawmakers should legislate accordingly.
Amanda Warner is the forced arbitration campaign manager for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division and Americans for Financial Reform.