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Gorsuch Gives His First Opinion for Supreme Court

Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch issued his first opinion Monday, writing for a unanimous court that it is the prerogative of Congress rather than the Supreme Court to address gaps in federal debt collection law.

The court unanimously ruled that the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act of 1977, which imposed strict regulation on firms that collect other companies’ debts, failed to address the activities of businesses that collect their own debts, like credit card companies and car dealerships.

“Everyone agrees that the term embraces the repo man — someone hired by a creditor to collect an outstanding debt,” Justice Gorsuch wrote in his opinion for Henson v. Santander Consumer USA.

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

The case addressed the question of whether the bank Santander Consumer USA qualified as a “debt collector,” which would make it subject to the stringent regulations of the FDCPA, or a “creditor,” which would make it immune from the act’s consumer protections.

Ricky Henson led a class-action lawsuit arguing that Santander Consumer USA was a “debt collector” that violated consumer protections provided by the FDCPA, because it was collecting debts on defaulted auto loans purchased from CitiFinancial.

But the court ruled that Santander Consumer USA was a “creditor” and exempted from the regulations of the FDCPA because Congress never passed legislation protection consumers under their particular debt collection model.

The plaintiffs in the case contended that if Congresswas aware of defaulted-debt purchasers like Santander at the time it passed the FDCPA, it would have treated them like traditional debt collectors, to protect consumers against abusive collection practices.

Gorsuch wrote that the plaintiff’s argument was moot.

“While it is, of course, our job to apply faithfully the law Congress has written,” Gorsuch wrote, “it is never our job to rewrite a constitutionally valid statutory text under the banner of speculation about what Congress might have done had it faced a question that, on everyone’s account, it never faced.”

Gorsuch acknowledged that “reasonable legislators” might take up the issue on how to protect consumers from unfair collection practices by companies that buy debt outright then collect it for themselves.

But, Gorsuch wrote, the Supreme Court did not have the constitutional right to make such a determination.

“This fact suggests for certain but one thing: that these are matters for Congress, not this Court, to resolve,” Gorsuch concluded.