In a recent speech, an SEC Commissioner took the opportunity to voice her concern that the prevalence of non-public guidance now being conveyed by SEC staffers to certain market participants and their counsel is tantamount to what she terms “secret law” which, in her opinion, “crosses the line” of propriety.
SEC Commissioner Hester M. Peirce’s well-crafted speech, given in Washington at the recent SEC Speaks 2019 event, invokes imagery of the children’s novel The Secret Garden to posit her belief that the abundance and importance of non-public guidance being provided and relied upon by certain of the SEC’s divisions and offices has created a secret garden of its own within the SEC’s walls. As an example, she cites her hearing that “staff simply will not accept certain applications for entire categories of products or types of businesses for reasons not found in our rules.” Additionally, she notes hearing that “one particularly complex set of Commission rules does not matter much in practice because firms operate instead under a set of published and unpublished letters and other directives from staff.” She also references firms being examined “against the terms of draft no-action letters and notes of telephone calls with Commission staff.” In all of these cases, Peirce fears that the “line has been crossed” and that such activities amount to “secret law.”
That such “sub rosa guidance,” as she terms it, amounts to “secret law,” is in Peirce’s opinion undeniable. As she points out, while it is true that courts would be reluctant to defer to such staff guidance in a legal proceeding, it nonetheless does “as a practical matter, bind market participants, affecting the scope of their rights and obligations and limiting the range of permissible activities.”