What's Uniting the SEC's Crypto Cases

We now wait to see how judges will rule on the Coinbase and Binance cases.

AccessTimeIconJan 24, 2024 at 9:30 p.m. UTC

Earlier this week, a federal judge asked attorneys with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission why – "big picture" – there wasn't any sort of uniting regulation addressing crypto.

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'Case by case'

The narrative

We may not get a consensus on how the federal judiciary looks at crypto, and judges are increasingly raising the question of where such a consensus could come from.

Why it matters

Whether the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission's view of how securities law applies to crypto is valid in the eyes of the federal judiciary is an open question. We've seen rulings from various district courts that suggest it's not a straightforward answer; now, judges themselves are saying more and more that something other than just public statements may be needed.

Breaking it down

Over the past week, we've heard from two different judges question lawyers with the SEC and crypto exchanges (Coinbase and Binance) about whether the federal agency has any sort of case against either crypto trading platform. Last week's newsletter focused on the hearings held that week (of course) but this week's rescheduled hearing in the SEC's case against Binance also had some interesting comments from District Judge Amy Berman Jackson.

"Where's the SEC been? Does that matter … why is it that if they're trying to achieve legislation, is that some suggestion there's something missing in the statute to cover this? Why are we doing this on a coin-by-coin, case-by-case, judge-by-judge litigation which depends on the … vagaries of the individual districts … as opposed to issuing a reg that tells everybody 'this is it?'" she asked.

And to be clear, the judge said at the beginning of this line of questioning that it was a "big picture" line of inquiry, but it was still a point she repeated during the course of the hearing.

"Much of [Binance's] brief has been focused on what I would call loose-leaf policy arguments: Congress is working on this, the SEC has taken contrary positions in the past. And you could certainly have a legitimate discussion about fairness, using litigation to regulate the cryptocurrency industry after years of inaction, or whether it makes sense as a policy matter to go token-by-token, court-by-court and risk, as we already gotten, some conflicting decisions on different important points, but how does any of that bear on a motion to dismiss?" she asked.

The SEC attorney answering her questions said he disagreed with the premise of these statements

"I would disagree with the premise that the SEC has contradicted itself," the agency attorney said.

The SEC has had a fairly straightforward view on cryptos since 2017 and the DAO Report – namely, that most cryptocurrencies seem to be securities (in the words of both former Chair Jay Clayton and current Chair Gary Gensler). The industry, for obvious reasons, really wants this to not be the case and has presented arguments in multiple lawsuits as to why most cryptos aren't or shouldn't be deemed securities.

And this brings us back to consensus.

While Judge Jackson did not go so far as to say Congress needed to get involved, her questions and comments on Monday seemed to raise a similar basic point that Judge Katherine Polk Failla – who's coincidentally overseeing the SEC's case against Coinbase – raised last fall when ruling on a putative class action suit against Uniswap.

Neither Congress nor the federal courts have made any "definitive determination[s]" on whether certain cryptos are securities or commodities (or some third thing), Judge Failla wrote in an order last September.

There's some obvious differences of course – the actual conduct and legal violations alleged being the biggest one – but the refrain we're hearing from judges that is there's no consensus yet, and that may need to change.

It could change later this year, if an appeals court decides to take up the SEC's bound-to-happen appeal of Judge Analisa Torres' ruling in the agency's case against Ripple (though I imagine that may still take a while).

Congress may actually pass some legislation addressing crypto and redefining the SEC's jurisdiction in the industry as well, theoretically.

Many of Judge Jackson's other questions seemed fairly straightforward, addressing different parts of the various briefs. At times, she sounded frustrated by what she heard from the attorneys arguing before her.

We now wait to see how Judges Jackson and Failla will rule on the motions to dismiss the case – though generally these cases aren't dismissed at this stage.

Stories you may have missed

This week

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Monday

  • 15:00 UTC (10:00 a.m. ET) The SEC and Binance answered questions before a federal judge.

Elsewhere:

  • (IOActive Labs) IOActive walked through an interesting set of exploits and vulnerabilities that let its researchers access a bitcoin ATM. These vulnerabilities have since been addressed.
  • (Bloomberg) Bloomberg's Lydia Beyoud profiled the SEC and Chair Gary Gensler.
  • (The Wall Street Journal) The Wall Street Journal's Elaine Yu and Weilun Soon reported on how crypto traders in China are transacting in digital assets.
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If you’ve got thoughts or questions on what I should discuss next week or any other feedback you’d like to share, feel free to email me at nik@coindesk.com or find me on Twitter @nikhileshde.

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See ya’ll next week!

Edited by Aoyon Ashraf.


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Nikhilesh De

Nikhilesh De is CoinDesk's managing editor for global policy and regulation. He owns marginal amounts of bitcoin and ether.