By Taylor Custer (Harvard Law School)
The United States’ response to COVID-19 has led to record levels of unemployment and a severe contraction in real GDP. The economic shock has already pushed companies such as J.C. Penney and J.Crew into bankruptcy. And many more, such as AMC and Hertz, may quickly follow. If that happens, the nation’s bankruptcy courts could soon face unprecedented levels of stress. There are at least four ways to address a potential surge.
First, Congress could authorize more permanent bankruptcy judges. It has currently authorized the federal courts of appeals to appoint 316 permanent bankruptcy judges throughout the country. But three years ago, when the economy was much stronger, the Judicial Conference argued that more judges were still needed.
Second, Congress could authorize more temporary bankruptcy judges. It has currently authorized about three dozen of them. Temporary bankruptcy judgeships expire when the occupant dies, retires, resigns, or is removed from office 5 years after the seat was created or extended. The most recent extension was in 2017, so the current temporary bankruptcy judgeships will remain vacant once occupants begin to depart after 2022 if the seats are not extended.
Third, the judicial council of each federal court of appeals could recall retired bankruptcy judges to serve.
Fourth, the judicial councils for the federal courts of appeals could agree to temporarily transfer bankruptcy judges around the country. Although this would do little to alleviate stress from an absolute rise in bankruptcies, it could help manage bottlenecks in places with disproportionate bankruptcy filings—such as Delaware, New York, and Texas. Under 28 U.S.C. § 152(d), “[w]ith the approval of the Judicial Conference and of each of the judicial councils involved, a bankruptcy judge may be designated to serve in any district adjacent to or near the district for which such bankruptcy judge was appointed.” And, under 28 U.S.C. § 155(a), “[a] bankruptcy judge may be transferred to serve temporarily as a bankruptcy judge in any judicial district other than the judicial district for which such bankruptcy judge was appointed upon the approval of the judicial council of each of the circuits involved.”