Liability and Admissions of Wrongdoing in Public Enforcement of Law

19 Pages Posted: 13 Mar 2013 Last revised: 22 Dec 2014

Date Written: March 7, 2013


Some judges and scholars have questioned the social value of the standard form in which the Securities and Exchange Commission settles its corporate enforcement actions, including the agency’s use of essentially unreviewed consent decrees that include no admission of liability or wrongdoing. This essay for a symposium on SEC enforcement provides an analysis of the deterrent effects of the three main components of settlements in public enforcement of law: liability, admission, and remedy. The conclusions are the following. All three components have beneficial deterrent effects. Cost considerations nonetheless justify some settlements that dispense with liability or admission, or even both. But a practice like the SEC’s of uniformly institutionalizing settlements without admissions, such that the deterrent effects of admissions are never realized, even for bargaining leverage, is not justified. Further, there is reason to believe that some form of judicial review of enforcement settlements would contribute to deterrence. To put the argument another way, the SEC and other agencies engaged in public civil enforcement could learn something from contemplating why the federal criminal justice system strongly disfavors nolo contendere pleas and why a plea bargaining system dominated by nolo pleas would be so undesirable as to be unthinkable.

Keywords: securities regulation, public enforcement, corporate crime, white collar crime

Suggested Citation

Buell, Samuel W., Liability and Admissions of Wrongdoing in Public Enforcement of Law (March 7, 2013). University of Cincinnati Law Review, Vol. 81, 2013. Available at SSRN:

Samuel W. Buell (Contact Author)

Duke University School of Law ( email )

210 Science Drive
Box 90362
Durham, NC 27708
United States
919-613-7193 (Phone)

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