Justice Scalia’s Bankruptcy Jurisprudence: The Right Judicial Philosophy for the Modern Bankruptcy Code?

By Megan McDermott (Lecturer, University of Wisconsin School of Law).

The late Justice Scalia is best known among mainstream audiences for his originalist approach to the Constitution, as well as his polarizing views on various civil rights issues. But anyone who has cracked open a bankruptcy casebook also knows Justice Scalia for his many contributions to the bankruptcy field — both through sturdy majority opinions in interpretive cases like Timbers, Nextwave, and Radlax, and through his biting dissents and concurrences in watershed decisions like Dewsnup and Stern.

My recent article, Justice Scalia’s Bankruptcy Jurisprudence: The Right Judicial Philosophy for the Modern Bankruptcy Code?, seeks to both quantify and qualify Justice Scalia’s contributions to bankruptcy law. I show that during his three decades on the Court, Justice Scalia wrote in more bankruptcy cases than any other justice (followed closely by Justices Stevens and Thomas).

I also identify four predominant themes that emerge from Justice Scalia’s bankruptcy oeuvre: (1) a holistic approach to the Bankruptcy Code; (2) a commitment to textualism, regardless of outcome; (3) disdain for legislative history; and (4) a desire for clear boundaries regarding the scope and authority of bankruptcy courts.

Finally, the article explores the impact of his jurisprudential legacy on the bankruptcy field. Of particular note are the ways in which Justice Scalia’s approach often favored ordinary consumers over creditor interests. I conclude that while Justice Scalia did not always live up to the ideals that he advocated, he nonetheless offered a unifying vision that fits well with both the purpose and the design of the Bankruptcy Code.

The full article is available here.

Merit Management v. FTI: Law Firm Perspectives

On February 27, the Supreme Court decided Merit Management Group, LP v. FTI Consulting, Inc., holding unanimously that the § 546(e) safe harbor does not protect allegedly fraudulent transfers “in which financial institutions served as mere conduits.” The Court’s decision resolves a circuit split on the reach of § 546(e). In reaching its conclusion, the Court focused on the “end-to-end transfer” that the trustee seeks to avoid, rather than any “component parts of the overarching transfer.” In FTI, because the overarching transfer was made between two parties not otherwise shielded by the safe harbor, the transfer will now fall outside the safe harbor.

As many law firms recognize, this decision will have wide-ranging implications on the finality of securities transactions effected through financial institutions, especially leveraged buyouts. Mayer Brown notes that as the decision enhances a trustee’s ability to recover fraudulent transfers, it also increases the bankruptcy estate’s leverage against recipients of pre-petition transfers. Cleary observes that “debtors or trustees may strategically frame avoidance actions in order to limit the scope of the safe harbor.” Mayer Brown concludes that the decision may also expose investors, investment funds and similar entities to fraudulent transfer litigation risks.

The bottom line, as Davis Polk notes, is that the § 546(e) safe harbor is no longer a blanket safe harbor for the recipients of transactions that pass through financial institutions. But the safe harbor will still shield financial institutions operating as escrow agents or clearinghouses, as the Court expressly stated that a financial institution under § 546(e) is protected whether the institution acts as a principal or as an intermediary.

Firms have noted that the decision also left open some ambiguities. First, Schulte Roth & Zabel writes that the Court leaves open possible arguments that any “customer” of a “financial institution” is also itself a “financial institution” under § 546(e). Second, Mayer Brown points out that the Court did not address whether the transaction at issue actually qualified as a transfer that is a “settlement payment” or made in connection with a “securities contract” under § 546(e). These ambiguities will draw the attention of defendants in future fraudulent transfer litigation.

Finally, Weil notes that the decision raises the question of how the preemption of state-law creditor remedies under § 546(e) will be applied in light of the Supreme Court’s now-narrow construction of the safe harbor.

By Jianjian Ye, Harvard Law School, J.D. 2018.

The roundtable has posted on FTI before. Some of those posts are: an analysis of the FTI oral argument, the Amici Curiae Brief of Bankruptcy Law Professors, an article by Ralph Brubaker on the meaning of § 546(e), and a roundup of law firm perspectives on the Seventh Circuit’s decision in FTI Consulting, Inc. v. Merit Management Group, LP, 830 F.3d 690 (7th Cir. 2016).

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