Justice Neil M. Gorsuch got a cushy assignment for his first Supreme Court opinion — a unanimous ruling affirming a lower court — and used it to showcase both his writing style and much-touted devotion to a textual interpretation of the laws Congress passes.
“Disruptive dinnertime calls, downright deceit, and more besides drew Congress’s eye to the debt collection industry,” Gorsuch began in an 11-page opinion that said federal law targeting annoying and abusive debt collectors does not cover companies that buy debt and try to collect it.
“Everyone agrees that the term embraces the repo man — someone hired by a creditor to collect an outstanding debt. But what if you purchase a debt and then try to collect it for yourself — does that make you a ‘debt collector’ too?” Gorsuch wrote in his folksy opening paragraph. “That’s the nub of the dispute now before us.”
The answer, Gorsuch said, is in the plain language of the statute, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Gorsuch wrote that the relevant part is the definition of “debt collector” as anyone who “regularly collects or attempts to collect . . . debts owed or due . . . another.”
When Congress passed the debt collection law in 1977, its strict regulations covered firms that collected debt for “another.” But now banks, credit card companies and other businesses collect on their own debt.
And in a case brought by Marylanders complaining about debt collection tactics, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit said the company at issue was not covered by the act.
It is Santander Consumer USA, which serviced car loans made by CitiFinancial. Santander later bought defaulted loans at a heavy discount and began to collect for itself. The complaint said Santander did not comply with restrictions in the law such as not dealing directly with customers represented by a lawyer.
But Santander said it was not covered by the law because it was now collecting debt for itself, not for another company.
Consumer groups and a number of states asked the Supreme Court to apply the law to such companies as Santander, because it was the techniques employed to collect debt that Congress was targeting.
But Gorsuch said if that was so, Congress could deal with it.
“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,” he said.
But he added:
“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.”
The case is Henson v. Santander Consumer USA Inc.