Estimating the Need for Additional Bankruptcy Judges in Light of the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Benjamin Iverson (BYU Marriott School of Business), Jared A. Ellias (University of California, Hastings College of the Law), and Mark Roe (Harvard Law School)

Ben Iverson
Jared A. Ellias
Mark Roe

We recently estimated the bankruptcy system’s ability to absorb an anticipated surge of financial distress among American consumers, businesses, and municipalities as a result of COVID-19.

An increase in the unemployment rate has historically been a leading indicator of the volume of bankruptcy filings that occur months later.  If prior trends repeat this time, the May 2020 unemployment rate of 13.3% will lead to a substantial increase in all types of bankruptcy filings.  Mitigation, governmental assistance, the unique features of the COVID-19 pandemic, and judicial triage should reduce the potential volume of bankruptcies to some extent, or make it less difficult to handle, and it is plausible that the impact of the recent unemployment spike will be smaller than history would otherwise predict. We hope this will be so.  Yet, even assuming that the worst-case scenario could be averted, our analysis suggests substantial, temporary investments in the bankruptcy system may be needed.

Our model assumes that Congress would like to have enough bankruptcy judges such that the average judge would not be pressed to work more than was the case during the last bankruptcy peak in 2010, when the bankruptcy system was pressured and the public caseload figures indicate that judges worked 50 hour weeks on average.

To keep the judiciary’s workload at 2010 levels, we project that, in the worst-case scenario, the bankruptcy system could need as many as 246 temporary judges, a very large number. But even in our most optimistic model, the bankruptcy system will still need 50 additional temporary bankruptcy judgeships, as well as the continuation of all current temporary judgeships.

Our memorandum’s conclusions were endorsed by an interdisciplinary group of academics and forwarded to Congress.

Practice Makes Perfect: Judge Experience and Bankruptcy Outcomes

By Benjamin Charles Iverson (Brigham Young University), Joshua Madsen (University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Carlson School of Management), Wei Wang (Queen’s School of Business), and Qiping Xu (University of Notre Dame, Department of Finance).

Prior studies document the influence of bankruptcy judges’ discretion on restructuring outcomes, yet we know little about how judicial experience affects the bankruptcy process. We study how the accumulation of job-specific human capital influences judges’ efficiency in handling large corporate bankruptcy filings, using 1,310 Chapter 11 filings by large U.S. public firms overseen by 309 unique bankruptcy judges in 75 bankruptcy courts between 1980 and 2012.

Using random assignment of judges to cases for empirical identification, we show that cases assigned to a judge with twice as much time on the bench realize a 5.5% decrease in time spent in reorganization. This reduced time in court translates into savings of approximately $2 million in legal fees alone for a typical case in our sample. Judges’ time on the bench is associated with higher probability of emergence but not higher recidivism. The combined evidence suggests that more experienced judges are overall more efficient. We also find that it takes up to four years for a new judge to become efficient and that judges who see a higher volume of business filings and a greater diversity of cases by size and industry early in their tenure become efficient faster than those who don’t. We find little evidence that judges’ general experience and personal attributes consistently affect case outcomes.

Our analyses highlight a potential benefit of allowing firms to file in courts with more experienced judges. Restricting this flexibility (e.g., through the proposed Bankruptcy Venue Reform Act of 2017) may impose a cost on firms by forcing them to file in courts with less experienced judges.

The full article is available here.

The Roundtable has previously posted on potential Bankruptcy venue reforms, including a summary of the Bankruptcy Venue Reform Act of 2018 introduced by Senators John Cornyn, R-TX, and Elizabeth Warren, D-MA. For a critique of current venue rules—and a possible solution—see Prof. Lynn LoPucki, “Venue Reform Can Save Companies.” For a defense of the current system, see the Roundtable’s summary of the Wall Street Journal’s “Examiners” Panel on venue reform.

Bankruptcy Step Zero

Authors: Douglas G. Baird and Anthony J. Casey

In RadLAX Gateway Hotel, LLC v Amalgamated Bank, the Supreme Court’s statutory interpretation focuses on an emerging theme of its bankruptcy jurisprudence: the proper domain of the bankruptcy judge. While one might expect the Court to approach that question of domain as it has for administrative agencies, that is not the approach taken. This article explores the Court’s approach to bankruptcy’s domain. In doing so, we connect three principal strands of the Court’s bankruptcy jurisprudence. The first strand, embodied in Butner v United States, centers on the idea that the bankruptcy forum must vindicate nonbankruptcy rights. The second, most recently addressed in Stern v Marshall, focuses on the limits of bankruptcy judges in deciding and issuing final judgment on the issues before them. Bankruptcy judges must limit themselves to deciding issues central to the administration of the bankruptcy process. RadLAX is the continuation of a third strand that makes it plain that the Court reads ambiguous provisions of the Bankruptcy Code to narrow the range of decisions over which the bankruptcy judge may exercise her discretion — at least when the exercise of that discretion might impact nonbankruptcy rights. The resulting bankruptcy jurisprudence is in stark contrast with the Court’s approach in administrative law. This paper attempts to make sense of this state of affairs and connect it with the realities of bankruptcy practice today.

The article is available here on SSRN.