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.

Proposed Bill: Bankruptcy Venue Reform Act of 2018

posted in: Bankruptcy Reform, Legislation | 0

Earlier this month, Senators John Cornyn, R-TX, and Elizabeth Warren, D-MA, introduced the Bankruptcy Venue Reform Act of 2018. With the aim of “prevent[ing] big companies from cherry-picking courts that they think will rule in their favor and to crack down on this corporate abuse of our nation’s bankruptcy laws,” the Act would amend §1408 of the Bankruptcy Act to require debtors to file in the district “in which the principal assets or principal place of business” are located. It would also bar debtors from tag-along filings in jurisdictions where their affiliates have ongoing bankruptcy proceedings unless that affiliate “owns, controls, is the general partner, or holds 50 percent or more of the outstanding voting securities” of the debtor. In short, the proposed Act would eliminate the domicile venue option and the affiliate option that allows larger parent companies to file in the same venue as a smaller subsidiary.

Significantly, the Act would oust Delaware from its position of bankruptcy venue of choice for the many businesses that do not operate in Delaware but are domiciled in Delaware by virtue of having incorporated there. The bankruptcy court in Delaware is the venue now chosen by many public firms that file to reorganize in chapter 11.

In response to the bill’s introduction, Delaware’s Governor and congressional delegation issued a joint statement:

Many American companies, large and small, choose to incorporate in Delaware because of the expertise and experience of our judges, attorneys, and business leaders. Denying American businesses the ability to file for bankruptcy in the courts of their choice would not only hurt Delaware’s economy but also hurt businesses of all sizes and the national economy as a whole. This is a misguided policy, and we strongly oppose it.

Senator Coons later published an additional statement emphasizing that the “Cornyn-Warren bill is bad for businesses everywhere, but it would be a disaster for Delaware.”

Bankruptcy venue reform was proposed, but not passed, in 2005 (S.314) and again in 2011 (H.R.2533). In seeking to remove the domicile and affiliate bankruptcy venue options, the Cornyn-Warren bill most closely mirrors the 2011 bill, H.R.2533, which Professor David Skeel has stated “would [have] overturn[ed] a long history of bankruptcy practice; it would undermine the effectiveness of our corporate bankruptcy system; it would increase the administrative costs of the system; and it would not help the very parties the proposal is ostensibly designed to help.”

If passed, the Act would require a major change in bankruptcy strategy for many businesses, but it remains to be seen whether the Act will gain traction in Congress.

(By Harold King, Harvard Law School, J.D. 2019.)

Bankruptcy Code Amendments Pass the House in Appropriations Bill

On July 7, the House of Representatives passed an appropriations bill (H.R. 5485) that includes a revised version of H.R. 2947, the Financial Institution Bankruptcy Act (FIBA), which passed the House by voice vote earlier this year. This bill, which the Roundtable has covered previously (here and here), would add to Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code a “Subchapter V” to facilitate the bankruptcy resolution of troubled financial institutions. The inclusion of FIBA in the appropriations bill suggests there could be a substantial effort to pass the bankruptcy bill this year.

The version of FIBA included in the appropriations bill is largely the same as the bill that was introduced in the House last July. Importantly, however, the current version of the bill, which passed the House by voice vote this past spring, no longer allows the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (the Board) to force a financial institution into bankruptcy. The role of federal regulators in the initiation and conduct of bankruptcy proceedings has been a controversial issue in debates about how to adapt the Bankruptcy Code to handle failed financial institutions more effectively. As included in the appropriations bill, FIBA permits only the debtor to file for bankruptcy. At the same time, the current bill would still provide for federal financial regulators, including the Board, to appear and be heard in any case under Subchapter V.

Although the bill aims to make bankruptcy feasible for large financial institutions, Subchapter V has been designed to facilitate a two-day, single-point-of-entry (SPOE) resolution strategy. FIBA’s proposed changes to the Bankruptcy Code would not support financial institutions during a lengthier path through bankruptcy. As the two-day bankruptcy resolution of a large, complex firm has no precedent, it is unclear whether the resolution strategy contemplated by Subchapter V would prove workable in practice. Thus, FIBA may not go as far as its proponents claim in making bankruptcy feasible for systemically important financial institutions (SIFIs).

H.R. 5485 is now in the Senate, which will consider it after the summer recess.

For a link to the full text of H.R. 5485, click here.

(This post was authored by Rebecca Green, J.D. ’17.)

Practitioners, Academics, and a Judge Testify about Safe Harbors before Congress

Author: Stephen D. Adams

The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial, and Antitrust Law has held two sets of hearings in recent months on the bankruptcy safe harbors for repos and derivatives from the automatic stay, from preference and fraudulent conveyance law, and from the limitations on ipso facto clauses.

This past Wednesday, March 26, Judge Christopher Sontchi, Seth Grosshandler, Jane Vris, Thomas Jackson, and Michelle Harner testified. Last December, Jeffrey Lacker, Donald Bernstein, and Mark Roe testified.

Judge Sontchi argued that the 546(e)’s exception for all settlement transactions is too broad and also urged Congress to narrow the safe harbors for repos. Seth Grosshandler, of Cleary Gottlieb, reported on the work of the ABI safe harbors advisory committee (which includes both Judge Sontchi and Prof. Roe) and warned that the safe harbors are complex and potentially costly to alter.  Jane Vris, representing the National Bankruptcy Conference (NBC), and Thomas Jackson, professor at the University of Rochester, testified on bankruptcy of SIFIs as an alternative to Dodd Frank resolution of bail-out.  Michelle Harner, professor at University of Maryland School of Law, testified in her role as the Reporter to the ABI Commission on Bankruptcy Reform about the Commission.

Mark Roe, professor at Harvard Law School, testified that the safe harbors facilitate excessive short-term funding of financial institutions and impede effective resolution of large financial failures, like that of Lehman in 2008.  Donald Bernstein, of Davis Polk, a member of the ABI bankruptcy commission, testified about the bankruptcy adjustments needed to adapt bankruptcy law to the FDIC’s Single Point of Entry resolution mechanisms.  Jeffrey Lacker, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, testified about the importance of bankruptcy reform to reduce the problem of too-big-to-fail and reduce reliance on short-term debt.

The written testimonies are linked above, and the video of the oral testimonies for the March 26th hearing will be found here once it has been posted, and is here for the December 3rd hearing.

For more on the bankruptcy safe harbors for derivatives and repurchase agreements, please see the post by Steven L. Schwarcz and Ori Sharon summarizing their recent paper, The Bankruptcy-Law Safe Harbor for Derivatives: A Path-Dependence Analysis, and the post by Kathryn Borgeson, Mark Ellenberg, Lary Stromfeld, and John Thompson, entitled Lehman Bankruptcy Court Issues Safe Harbor Decision, summarizing a recent Lehman case decision on the safe harbors, both published Tuesday.