New Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch Will be Good for Bankruptcy Law

Trump Supreme Court
New Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, with wife Louise (photo from The Denver Post)

By: Donald L. Swanson

The only things I know about Judge (now Justice) Neil Gorsuch are from what I’ve read in two contexts:

  1. His rating by the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary, which voted unanimously to give its best possible rating to Judge Gorsuch as a Supreme Court nominee; and
  2. Five bankruptcy opinions he authored as a Tenth Circuit Judge.

Based on these five opinions, I can appreciate why the American Bar Association gave him their best possible rating.

By the way, I try to ignore national politics as much as possible because it seems, many days, that national politics is a vicious business, worthy of contempt on all sides of the partisan divides.

Fortunately, bankruptcy issues rarely provide fodder for partisan disputes.  It’s difficult, for example, to get conservatives, moderates or liberals rallying ‘round issues like cash collateral, credit bidding and structured dismissals.

Based on the five Gorsuch bankruptcy opinions I’ve read, here is my first reaction:

Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch will be good for bankruptcy law.

Here’s why.

Six Examples from Five Opinions

First of all, Judge Gorsuch is an engaging writer—and for those of us required by profession to read lots of cases, this is a bonus!  Here’s an example — it’s a summary of an issue on whether the bankruptcy court can decide a particular dispute (from In re Renewable Energy Development Corp.):

“This case has but little to do with bankruptcy. Neither the debtor nor the creditors, not even the bankruptcy trustee, are parties to it. True, the plaintiffs claim they once enjoyed an attorney-client relationship with a former bankruptcy trustee. True, they now allege the former trustee breached professional duties due them because of conflicting obligations he owed the bankruptcy estate. But the plaintiffs seek recovery only under state law and none of their claims will be necessarily resolved in the bankruptcy claims allowance process. And to know that much is to know this case cannot be resolved in bankruptcy court.”

Second, Judge Gorsuch respects and honors the limitations on his authority.  As a Circuit Judge he is subservient to higher authority — to decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court and to enactments of Congress — despite flaws he may see in those decisions and enactments.  In the In re Woolsey case, for example, he writes:

“We do not doubt a strong argument can be made that the language and logic of § 506 permit the Woolseys to void not only Citibank’s lien but any lien to the extent it is unsupported by value in the collateral. But we fail to see any principled way we might, as lower court judges, get there from here. [The Supreme Court’s Dewsnup opinion] may be a gnarled bramble blocking what should be an open path. But it is one only the Supreme Court and Congress have the power to clear away.”

Third, Judge Gorsuch will bring clarity to jurisdiction issues that have been hounding bankruptcy courts.  The following lengthy analysis shows that he understands (and can explain with clarity) this difficult legal problem and its over-arching civic context (from In re Renewable Energy Development Corp.):

The Constitution assigns “[t]he judicial Power” to decide cases and controversies to an independent branch of government populated by judges who serve without fixed terms and whose salaries may not be diminished. U.S. Const. art. III, § 1. This constitutional design is all about ensuring “clear heads … and honest hearts,” the essential ingredients of “good judges.” . . . After all, the framers lived in an age when judges had to curry favor with the crown in order to secure their tenure and salary and their decisions not infrequently followed their interests. Indeed, the framers cited this problem as among the leading reasons for their declaration of independence. . . . And later they crafted Article III as the cure for their complaint, promising there that the federal government will never be allowed to take the people’s lives, liberties, or property without a decision maker insulated from the pressures other branches may try to bring to bear. . . . To this day, one of the surest proofs any nation enjoys an independent judiciary must be that the government can and does lose in litigation before its “own” courts like anyone else.

Despite the Constitution’s general rule, over time the Supreme Court has recognized three “narrow” situations in which persons otherwise entitled to a federal forum may wind up having their dispute resolved by someone other than an Article III judge.  . . . [One of these three situations is] public rights doctrine.

As developed to date, public rights doctrine has something of “a potluck quality” to it. . . . The original idea appears to have been that certain rights belong to individuals inalienably — things like the rights to life, liberty, and property — and they may not be deprived except by an Article III judge. Meanwhile, additional legal interests may be generated by positive law and belong to the people as a civic community and disputes about their scope and application may be resolved through other means, including legislation or executive decision. . . . But the boundary between private and public rights has proven anything but easy to draw and some say it’s become only more misshapen in recent years thanks to seesawing battles between competing structuralist and functionalist schools of thought. . . . Indeed, the Court itself has acknowledged, its treatment of the doctrine “has not been entirely consistent.” . . .

Bankruptcy courts bear the misfortune of possessing ideal terrain for testing the limits of public rights doctrine and they have provided the site for many such battles. . . . Even today, it’s pretty hard to say what the upshot is. Through it all, the Supreme Court has suggested that certain aspects of the bankruptcy process may implicate public rights and thus lawfully find resolution in Article I courts. . . . But the Court has also emphasized time and again that not every “proceeding [that] may have some bearing on a bankruptcy case” implicates a public right amenable to resolution in an Article I tribunal. . . .

That much, of course, hardly decides cases. What most everyone wants to know is which aspects of typical bankruptcy proceedings do and don’t implicate public rights. Yet even Stern, perhaps the Court’s most comprehensive tangle with the question, offered no comprehensive rule for application across all cases. Instead, it invoked a number of different factors to support the result it reached in the particular and rather unusual case at hand.

Fourth, Judge Gorsuch does much more than a grammatical parsing of statutory language.  In the In re Dawes case, Judge Gorsuch deals with farmer-tax issues under Chapter 12, on which the Eighth and Ninth Circuit Courts of Appeals had split. Judge Gorsuch sides with the Ninth Circuit, based on three separate considerations: (i) “the plain language of the statute before us,” (ii) “the larger statutory structure,” and (iii) “Congress’s expressed purposes.”  As to Congressional purposes, Judge Gorsuch says:

Our interpretation as well gives effect and respect to the congressional purpose they identify. Ordinarily, of course, taxes are not dischargeable in bankruptcy; the tax man is rarely avoidable. Yet under our interpretation of § 503(b), income taxes incurred as a result of the pre-petition disposition of certain farm assets are eligible for § 1222(a)(2)(A)’s generous rule allowing them to be treated as unsecured claims, compromised, and discharged. . . . Clearly, then, our reading gives respect to Congress’s wish to provide a substantial form of special assistance targeted to farmers. We only stop short of extending § 1222(a)(2)(A)’s treatment to income taxes incurred post-petition by the debtor rather than the estate.

The U.S. Supreme Court ended up siding with Judge Gorsuch and the Ninth Circuit on this farmer-tax issues.

Fifth, Judge Gorsuch respects and applies non-binding precedent.  In the Ardese v. DCT, Inc. case, Judge Gorsuch applies the law and rationale developed in a prior Tenth Circuit case, indicating that “there is little obvious daylight between [the prior case] and Ms. Ardese’s case.”

Finally, Judge Gorsuch shows professional humility in the TW Telecom Holdings, Inc. v Carolina Internet Ltd. case.  The Tenth Circuit had been applying a specific rule of law involving the automatic bankruptcy stay.  Judge Gorsuch notes that at least “nine other circuit courts of appeals disagree” and that the Tenth Circuit rule is based on faulty reasoning.  So, his opinion overrules the Tenth Circuit rule and declares that the Tenth Circuit will thereafter follow the same rule applied in other circuits.

Conclusion

Based upon these five opinion, I like Judge Gorsuch and believe he will be good for bankruptcy law as a Supreme Court Justice.

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