Reports of Equity’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

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By Adam J. Levitin, Georgetown University Law Center

Mark Berman is veryLevitin Headshot kind to take notice of my article in his recent analysis of Law v. Siegel, posted on the HLS Bankruptcy Roundtable, here.  We agree on a great deal about the case and scope of equity practice.  A question persists about the scope of Law v. Siegel, though, and what it is proscribing when it reiterates the view that “whatever equitable powers remain in the bankruptcy courts must and can only be exercised within the confines of the Bankruptcy Code.”  The question, then, is which non-Code practices are properly characterized as “equity”.  My own view is that very little of modern bankruptcy practice is in fact “equity.”

Law v. Siegel, for example, should not affect such important non-Code practices as judicial interpretation of Bankruptcy Code statutory terms or judicially-created doctrines like substantial consolidation, which are sometimes mistakenly listed among the bankruptcy court’s “equitable powers”.  As I wrote earlier, though, because such practices are interstitial and formed as broad principles, they are, in my view, better understood as part of a federal common law of bankruptcy, and distinguished from equitable powers, which are based on case-by-case specifics, as in Law v. Siegel.  As interstitial powers, these lie outside any widening or narrowing of bankruptcy court’s equitable powers.

Moreover, the uncertainties about when actual equitable practices contradict statutes will continue.  In cases of clear contradiction, the interpretive result will be easy. But cases where it is unclear whether a conflict truly exists will continue to invite negotiation between and among the parties because of the cost and uncertainty of litigation.  Despite the Supreme Court’s best efforts, consideration of the equities will likely remain a part of our bankruptcy system.

For a fuller treatment of this subject, please continue here.

‘Wither’ the Equity Powers of the Bankruptcy Court

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Author: Mark N. Berman, Nixon Peabody LLP

The United StaMark Bermantes Supreme Court’s Law v. Siegel decision has been explained away as an understandable limitation of a bankruptcy court’s use of Bankruptcy Code Section 105(a)’s expansive authority based on conventional techniques of statutory construction. Bankruptcy courts will not be able to use Section 105(a) to authorize an order that is otherwise prohibited by another section of the Bankruptcy Code.  However, it is also possible to read the decision as yet another stop on the road to limiting the ability of the bankruptcy courts to ‘do equity.’

Revisiting Professor Levitin’s 2006 law review article entitled Toward a Federal Common Law of Bankruptcy: Judicial Lawmaking in a Statutory Regime, 80 Am. Bankr. L.J. 1-87 (2006), I posit that the equity jurisdiction of the bankruptcy courts has already been statutorily restricted and the United States Supreme Court has made it clear that everyone should be prepared for further limitation of what has historically been its power. The Supreme Court’s warning is repeated in this latest decision.

The full alert is available here.

[Editor: The full text of Professor Adam Levitin’s noted article, Toward a Federal Common Law of Bankruptcy: Judicial Lawmaking in a Statutory Regime, can be found here.]

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.

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