High Court debates presidential power on 'Super Tuesday'

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court wrestled Tuesday with whether to make it easier for the president to fire the head of the agency that enforces federal consumer financial laws, a decision that could ultimately impact a vast range of agencies.

The high court was hearing arguments in a case involving the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the agency Congress created in response to the 2008 financial crisis.

The agency was the brainchild of Massachusetts senator and Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, and arguments took place as voters in 14 states were selecting who they want to be the Democratic party's nominee for president.

During arguments at the high court some justices were clearly bothered by a restriction that keeps the president from firing the CFPB's head whenever he wants. Justice Brett Kavanaugh called that restriction “troubling.” But other justices seemed willing to let the restriction stand, including Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who described the restrictions as “modest." 

RELATED: Take a behind the scenes look at the Supreme Court justices:

32 PHOTOS
Behind the scenes with Supreme Court Justices
See Gallery
Behind the scenes with Supreme Court Justices
A circular staircase is seen in the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. January 28, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
A marble staircase leads down to an elevator at the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. October 5, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
A notice is seen on a lectern, which faces the bench and where lawyers stand to argue, in the courtroom of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, U.S. April 4, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas stands in his chambers at the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. June 6, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst SEARCH "SCOTUS" FOR THIS STORY. THE IMAGES SHOULD ONLY BE USED TOGETHER WITH THE STORY - NO STAND-ALONE USES. IMAGE FOR USE AND PUBLICATION ONLY AS PART OF REUTERS SUPREME COURT "Marble, drape and justice: inside the U.S. Supreme Court" PHOTO ESSAY UNTIL AFTER OCTOBER 1, 2017.
Elevator operator Johnnie Bacon, from Washington, smiles at a passenger as he tends one of the elevators in the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. April 4, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
People hold umbrellas on a rainy day at the plaza by the Supreme Court in Washington, U.S. November 10, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy delivers a lecture for visiting international attorneys in the West Conference Room at the Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. June 20, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
Daniel Agbleze waters flowers in one of the four inner courtyards at the Supreme Court in Washington, U.S. June 6, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
The courtroom of the U.S. Supreme Court is seen in Washington, U.S. April 4, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
Visitors look on as attorney John Duggan (R) takes photos with his family, after arguing a case at the U.S. Supreme Court building, on the first day of the court's new term in Washington, U.S. October 5, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
Historical and mythical figures of the law are seen in a frieze in the courtroom of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, U.S. April 4, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
Red velvet drapes hang at the back of the courtroom at the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. June 20, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
A clock hangs above the bench in the courtroom of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, U.S. April 4, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Name plates mark the spaces reserved for justices' families in the courtroom of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, U.S. April 4, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Pencils, a reminder of how to address the court and a seating chart of the justices are seen at the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. June 20, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas jokes with his clerks as he describes their decision-making process in his chambers at the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. June 6, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
Carved oak walls and arches are seen in the reading area of the library at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, U.S. April 4, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer looks for a favourite volume of Proust in his rare book collection in his chambers at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, U.S. June 8, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts eats a bowl of soup as he sits down to lunch with his team of clerks in his private study at the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. June 15, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas jokes with his clerks as he describes their decision-making process in his chambers at the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. June 6, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst SEARCH "SCOTUS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. THE IMAGES SHOULD ONLY BE USED TOGETHER WITH THE STORY - NO STAND-ALONE USES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan walks with her clerks in one of the four inner courtyards at the Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. June 20, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg shows the many different collars (jabots) she wears with her robes, in her chambers, at the Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. June 17, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
A guard stands on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S., October 5, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
An anti-abortion protester demonstrates outside the U.S. Supreme Court building on the first day of the court's new term in Washington, October 5, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
Television journalists prepare for a news conference on the plaza in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building, in Washington, U.S. June 9, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
U.S. Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben departs the U.S. Justice Department in traditional morning coat on his way to argue his one-hundredth case before the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, U.S. April 27, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
U.S. Supreme Court justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor sit on stage as they talk about the role of food in the life of the U.S. Supreme Court at the National Museum of American History in Washington, U.S. June 1, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Reporters wait for the release of the text of the justices' opinions, timed to match the readings of the decisions from the bench, at the Supreme Court in Washington, U.S. June 6, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst 
Dappled light falls across books shelved in the library at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington January 28, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg shows the many different collars (jabots) she wears with her robes, in her chambers at the Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. June 17, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst SEARCH "SCOTUS" FOR THIS STORY. THE IMAGES SHOULD ONLY BE USED TOGETHER WITH THE STORY - NO STAND-ALONE USES. IMAGE FOR USE AND PUBLICATION ONLY AS PART OF REUTERS SUPREME COURT "Marble, drape and justice: inside the U.S. Supreme Court" PHOTO ESSAY UNTIL AFTER OCTOBER 1, 2017. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas sits in his chambers at the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. June 6, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst SEARCH "SCOTUS" FOR THIS STORY. THE IMAGES SHOULD ONLY BE USED TOGETHER WITH THE STORY - NO STAND-ALONE USES. IMAGE FOR USE AND PUBLICATION ONLY AS PART OF REUTERS SUPREME COURT "Marble, drape and justice: inside the U.S. Supreme Court" PHOTO ESSAY UNTIL AFTER OCTOBER 1, 2017.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy delivers a lecture for visiting international attorneys in the West Conference Room at the Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. June 20, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst SEARCH "SCOTUS" FOR THIS STORY. THE IMAGES SHOULD ONLY BE USED TOGETHER WITH THE STORY - NO STAND-ALONE USES. IMAGE FOR USE AND PUBLICATION ONLY AS PART OF REUTERS SUPREME COURT "Marble, drape and justice: inside the U.S. Supreme Court" PHOTO ESSAY UNTIL AFTER OCTOBER 1, 2017.
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

Under the Dodd-Frank Act that created the CFPB, its director is appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate to a five-year term. The president can only remove a director for “inefficiency, neglect of duty or malfeasance in office." That means that an incoming president usually can't immediately fire the agency's head appointed in the previous administration.

Defenders of the bureau's structure say it is good in that it insulates the agency's head from pressure by the president. But detractors say the restriction is unconstitutional and improperly limits the power of the president.

The impact of the justices' decision in the case could go beyond the CFPB because the heads of other so-called independent agencies have a similar restriction on being fired. Those agencies include the Federal Reserve, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Federal Trade Commission, Federal Communications Commission and Securities and Exchange Commission. Unlike the CFPB, however, those agencies are headed by multi-member boards.

The case was brought to the court by the Orange County, California-based consumer law firm Seila Law. As part of an investigation, the CFPB demanded information and documents from the firm, which is run by a solo practitioner. Seila Law responded by challenging the CFPB's structure. Two lower courts ruled against the law firm.

The Obama administration initially defended the structure of the agency. The Trump administration later reversed course and now says the structure is unconstitutional.

A decision in the case, Seila Law LLC v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, 19-7, is expected by the end of June.

Read Full Story