The Municipal Bond Cases Revisited

By Allison Buccola (Independent) and Vince Buccola (Assistant Professor, The Wharton School)

Allison Buccola
Vince Buccola

Puerto Rico’s Title III proceedings under PROMESA mark the return of debt repudiation as a feature of the government debt restructuring landscape. Backed by an official committee, the Federal Oversight and Management Board has argued that some $6 billion of bonds the Commonwealth issued are void and worthless. According to the Board, the bonds were sold illegally, in contravention of a constitutional debt limit, so that (also according to the Board) they cannot bind the Commonwealth. A similar argument was lodged in Detroit’s bankruptcy. For the better part of a century before that, however, repudiation was mostly unheard of in the United States. 

The invocation of ultra vires to escape bond obligations is nothing new, though. In the second half of the nineteenth century, municipal debtors frequently welched on their debts. In the 1850s and 1860s, cities, towns, and counties across the Midwest and West issued bonds to finance the construction of railroads and other infrastructure. Many ultimately defaulted. Rather than simply announce that they couldn’t or wouldn’t pay, however, they often contended that they needn’t pay: for one or another reason, the relevant bonds had been issued ultra vires and so were no obligation of the municipality at all. Litigation in the federal courts was common. Several hundred repudiation disputes made their way to the Supreme Court in the forty years starting 1859.

With an eye to the modern cases, we set out to understand how the Court reckoned with repudiation. We read every one of the 196 cases in which the Justices opined on bond validity (i.e. the enforceability of a bond in the hands of innocent purchasers). In a recently published article, we correct received wisdom about the cases and remark on the logical structure of the Court’s reasoning.

To the extent the municipal bond cases are remembered, modern scholars usually think of them as exemplary instances of a political model of judging. The caricature has the Court siding with bondholders even when the law called on them to rule for the repudiating municipalities. The Justices—or a majority of them—are imagined as staunch political allies of the capitalist class, set against the institutions of state government and their regard for agricultural interests. We find that this picture is inconsistent with reality. In fact, the Court ruled for the repudiating municipality in a third of all the validity cases. As importantly, the Court’s decisions reflected a readily articulable formal logic, a logic the Justices seem, to our eyes, to have applied soundly.

The Court’s analytical approach traded on a distinction between legal and factual bases for repudiation. A municipality might repudiate either on a theory that no legal authority permitted the contested bond to be issued under the circumstances the bondholder alleged or, alternatively, on a theory that the circumstances alleged did not in fact pertain. Where the theory of repudiation turned on a legal predicate, the Court simply proceeded to the merits, comparing the bond to the powers granted to the issuer by state law at the time of issuance. Repudiating municipalities often prevailed.

Where the theory of repudiation turned on a factual predicate, by contrast, bondholders fared much better. The defining theme in such cases was a procedural mechanism that precluded assessment of the merits, namely the adaptation of estoppel doctrine to the municipal context. It was, and still is, customary for bonds to recite circumstances relevant to issuance. Estoppel allowed buyers in the secondary market to credit whatever facts—but only facts—the issuer declared true at the time of issuance. In a number of debt-limit cases reminiscent of Puerto Rico, this logic propelled bondholders to a judgment. Estoppel did not resolve all fact-based repudiation arguments. It did not foreclose a trial if, for example, the contested bond failed to recite a predicate fact. Nevertheless estoppel was an important feature of the bond cases, one which, given the profound asymmetry of information that prevailed with respect to matters of fact, probably helped to sustain the bond market as a source of capital for municipal development.

The article can be found here.