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In his first Supreme Court opinion, Gorsuch shows writing flair, strict interpretation of law

“Disruptive dinnertime calls, downright deceit and more drew Congress’s eye to the debt collection industry,” begins Supreme Court Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch's first opinion on the high court.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

Justice Neil M. Gorsuch used his first high court opinion Monday to write a concise, pointed essay on how the justices should decide cases — by following the “plain terms” of the law, not by updating an old statute to meet new problems.

“These are matters for Congress, not this court,” he wrote.

He spoke for all nine justices in limiting the reach of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act of 1977 to debt-collection businesses and not to companies that have purchased unpaid debts which they then try to collect for themselves.

It was also the first opportunity for Gorsuch to display his writing style, which has been praised for its clarity and avoidance of the usual legalese.

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“Disruptive dinnertime calls, downright deceit and more drew Congress’s eye to the debt collection industry,” he began the opinion.

Gorsuch, also known as a stickler for following the exact wording the law, stressed the act refers to agents who collect debts “owed … another.”

“Everyone agrees that the term embraces the repo man — someone hired by a creditor to collect an outstanding debt,” he wrote in Henson vs. 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.”

Gorsuch explained that Congress in 1977 was concerned about aggressive debt collectors. But the words of the law make clear its provisions apply only to someone who collects debts for others. It exempted banks and car companies that try to collect on unpaid loans they’ve made.

The court was confronted with the argument that many companies in recent years have gone into the business of buying up unpaid debts at a discount and then seeking to collect on them.

The case before the court began when four Maryland consumers defaulted on car loans provided by CitiFinancial Auto. That company sold a portfolio of these unpaid loans for a few cents on the dollar to Santander, a consumer finance company, which in turn sought to collect on them.

The four Maryland plaintiffs sued, contending that Santander was inflating the amount owed. They also said the new loan holders were violating the federal consumer protection law.

The lower courts were split on whether the 1977 law extended to companies whose business involves buying unpaid debt.

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Gorsuch said the “evolution of the debt collection business” could be a good reason for Congress to revisit and revise the old law. “After all, it’s hardly unknown for new business models to emerge in response to regulation, and for regulation in turn to address new business models,” he wrote. But that updating is not for judges, he added.

“While it is of course our job to apply faithfully the law Congress has written, 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 the question that, on everyone’s account, it never faced,” he wrote.

“The proper role of the judiciary,” he concluded, is “to apply, not amend, the work of the People’s representatives.”

david.savage@latimes.com

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On Twitter: DavidGSavage

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