July 15 will mark the first day in the office for the United States Commodity Futures Trading Commission’s (CFTC) new chairman, Heath Tarbert. As the crypto community is bidding farewell to the regulator’s outgoing head, J. Christopher Giancarlo, his successor’s stance on digital assets remains unknown. Turning to Tarbert’s record as a civil servant and attorney in the financial markets field could shed some light on the direction that the agency might take under his leadership.
Giancarlo’s five-year tenure saw the rise of cryptocurrency derivatives as an object of regulatory oversight. Widely regarded as the crypto industry’s ally, “Crypto Dad” superintended the historic launch of regulated Bitcoin futures and advocated for a “do no harm” approach to blockchain regulation in his testimony before the U.S. Congress. At the same time, as some observers have pointed out, Giancarlo has stepped up enforcement efforts, turning the CFTC into an agency with teeth.
The news of President Donald Trump nominating Tarbert, a senior official in the Treasury Department, to serve as the new head of the CFTC emerged in December 2018. On June 5, 2019, the Senate voted to confirm his appointment by a wide margin, 84-9. Although Giancarlo’s tenure expired in April 2019, he agreed to stay until mid-July to oversee the agency’s transition to new leadership. In a statement, the outgoing chairman offered praise to his heritor, calling him highly qualified to continue transforming the agency “into a 21st Century regulator for today’s digital markets.”
Heath Tarbert: background and early career
A native of Baltimore, MD, Heath Tarbert received his bachelor’s degree in accounting and international business from Mount St. Mary, a Catholic liberal arts university located in his home state. He then spent four years in law school at the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania, consecutively earning his Juris Doctor and Doctor of Juridical Science. Tarbert then received the Thouron Award, a prestigious postgraduate scholarship that allowed him to pursue yet another advanced degree: a Ph.D. in comparative law from Oxford.
Having sealed this illustrious scholarly record, Tarbert began his industry career with a series of junior positions at law firms and clerkships in the judicial branch of the U.S. government. Between 2007 and 2008, he worked for the conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. This appointment likely played a significant role in Tarbert’s subsequent return to public service in the wake of Trump’s accession to the White House. According to one estimate, about 20% of Thomas office’s alumni have landed either political appointments or judicial nominations since early 2017, earning their former boss the informal status of “the Trump administration’s legal godfather.”
Upon concluding his clerkship with Justice Thomas, Heath Tarbert went on to serve as Associate Counsel to the President of the United States in the last…