Judge Rakoff's principle based on Contract rights and duties vs. legal rights and duties
Two types of rights (and/or duties)
First are rights created out of mutual agreement, called contractual rights. These exists separately outside the law. Only when there is dispute, the law intervenes. Even then, law only intervenes to clarify what is the real agreement between the parties and has it been honored. Contractual rights exist within the boundaries of law - sort of like a playground where you are free to do what you want so long as you don't hurt anyone. Second are rights created by law. These are typically like the classrooms of strict schools - ordered and disciplined, everything is straitjacketed here. Punishment is imposed by the law to those who transgress the rights of others or duties imposed on them.
Important consideration is that contractual rights cannot infringe legal rights. Thus contracts to commit illegal acts are void.
Settlement agreement with SEC
Settlement agreements, though contractual in nature, affect rights created by law when settlement is about illegal activity. Hence I agree with Judge Rakoff, one cannot have a settlement and also be considered not guilty.
Yves Smith has a post on JP Morgan being impacted by Rakoff decisions (read down to comments too) speaks of this debate. (The post itself speaks about not allowing insurance for fraud etc).
I think Judge Rakoff is on the right track.
- You cannot settle away an illegal act. And more so when the parties to settlement are not the only ones who are affected. The problem occurs when the other parties are kept in the dark and have no clue they have suffered from illegal acts. The SEC is duty-bound to expose such acts not merely settle them out. Hence the para "But the S.E.C., of all agencies, has a duty, inherent in its statutory mission, to see that the truth emerges; and if it fails to do so, this Court must not, in the name of deference or convenience, grant judicial enforcement to the agency’s contrivances."
- Courts are not house of power that can be called at the whim of parties. In the particular case, SEC wanted the courts to apply injunctive relief to which the counter-party, Citi Group had agreed. The role of the Court was that of an umpire.