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.

A Few Predictions for Justice Gorsuch’s Bankruptcy Jurisprudence

By Megan McDermott (University of Wisconsin Law School)

The confirmation of a new Supreme Court justice offers opportunities to speculate about how his judicial philosophy will impact various areas of the law. Bankruptcy is no exception. Justice Gorsuch’s presence on the high court could have major implications for bankruptcy law.

Using Gorsuch’s published Tenth Circuit bankruptcy decisions, my essay examines how closely Justice Gorsuch’s approach is likely to overlap with that of his predecessor, Antonin Scalia. As I show in a forthcoming Utah Law Review article (here), Justice Scalia played a leading role in the Supreme Court’s development of modern bankruptcy law during his three decades on the court. In this sequel essay, I explain why Justice Gorsuch is well-poised to play a similarly important role, with two highlights.

First, I predict that Gorsuch may push the Court to revisit Stern v. Marshall, the blockbuster 2010 decision in which the Court rejected Congress’s efforts to give bankruptcy courts judicial powers beyond the bounds of Article III. If Judge Gorsuch’s decision in In re Renewable Energy Development Corporation, 792 F.3d 1274 (10th Cir. 2015), is a reliable indication of where he and the other justices he cites are leaning, we may soon see a new approach to the many Stern problems that bankruptcy judges have faced during the last decade. Under this new approach, the focus will shift away from the public rights doctrine and toward the framework of summary and plenary jurisdiction employed by the eighteenth century English bankruptcy system.

Second, Justice Gorusch may be more open to considering legislative history arguments than his predecessor. Justice Scalia routinely urged his colleagues to avoid references to legislative history. In stark contrast to this dogmatic approach, Gorsuch’s Tenth Circuit bankruptcy writings suggest some willingness to indulge arguments about legislative history of the Bankruptcy Code. Because so many of the bankruptcy appeals that the Court hears are, essentially, statutory interpretation questions, even this slight shift in interpretive approach could have significant repercussions for the field.

The full paper can be found here.