Topeka Attorneys Observe U.S. Supreme Court Bankruptcy Argument in Lanning

We watched the arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., yesterday in the bankruptcy case of Hamilton v. Lanning.

We are not involved in this case.  We attended as observers.  The case deals with the formula for determining how much a debtor has to pay her general creditors in a chapter 13 bankruptcy payment plan.  You can read the transcript or listen to the recording of the 60 minute hearing.

Jan Hamilton is the chapter 13 bankruptcy trustee in Topeka.  He objected to confirmation of Stephanie Lanning’s chapter 13 plan because she is not proposing to pay the disposable income determined by the means test.  Her previous six months’ income average was extraordinarily high due to two job lump sum severance payments she received in the fifth and sixth months prior to filing her bankruptcy.  She then lost her job and got a new job for less wages.  She cannot afford to pay the amount the means test dictates and proposed to pay less.

The bankruptcy court denied the trustee’s objection and said the means test is a presumption, a starting point, that the court has the discretion to look forward to determine a debtor’s projected disposable income.  The trustee appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, which affirmed.  The U.S. Supreme Court accepted the trustee’s appeal based upon opposing circuit court opinions between the mechanical approach and the forward looking approach.

At the argument, we saw Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Scalia vs. Justice Ginsberg and Justice Sotomayor–strict construction of the means test statute vs. finding an “escape” for this debtor who did not pass the means test because of job buyout and could not afford to pay the means test result.  Justice Alito seemed to share concerns with Justices Ginsberg and Sotomayor.  Justice Thomas, Justice Breyer and Justice Stevens did not ask any questions or make comments.  Justice Kennedy made a brief comment or two.  Justice Scalia evoked laughter a few times.

I was surprised and impressed by the Court’s command of bankruptcy law.  I did not expect that.  (I did not know yesterday that the Espinosa bankruptcy decision would be issued today.)  I am told the Court is hot for argument, meaning they have already read the briefs and taken a preliminary vote, prior to argument.  The Court peppered both sides with questions in a respectful way.  The trustee spoke about 90 seconds before Justice Ginsberg asked the first question.  He got several other minutes of his prepared speech made in spurts here and there and did a two minute rebuttal at the end. The trustee was a better advocate, in my view, but there was sympathy for the debtor’s plight. There also was deference to the government position.

All of the justices who spoke accepted the reset of current monthly income (CMI) period in 11 U.S.C. 101(10) though Justice Ginsberg thought it “odd” and Justice Sotomayor was concerned that debtor could reset CMI by failing to do something she was supposed to do (file I and J).  There was a discussion of judicial discretion.  The questioning Justices were not very interested in the debtor’s options in this case (delaying filing, filing a 7, converting to 7, dismissing and refiling).  Justice Ginsberg said conversion resulted in less money to creditors.  She also said dismissing and refiling was a waste of time and resources.

This case boils down to does the means test statute control or is there an “escape” for a debtor who is victim to a harsh result if the statute controls? Who knows what the result will be.  It is very difficult to tell from the argument.  I left the room thinking the debtor might win, but I know there is strong strict construction sentiment on the Court.

The juxtaposition of the parties was very odd.  It was strange having the government on the side of the debtor against the 13 trustee.  The government position was quite the opposite of the position the U.S. Trustee has taken on many other means test issues.  One has to wonder what would happen if the government was on the trustee side of the case.

Stephanie Lanning was present at the argument of her case.  She was represented by Tom Goldstein of Akin Gump, a veteran Supreme Court litigator. He runs a pro bono project with law students for unrepresented Supreme Court litigants and also publishes the SCOTUS blog.

Mr. Souter, the clerk of the court, also wore a morning coat with the traditional vest and pants.  The court marshal, the first female to hold the office, also wears a morning coat, although she was seated and I did not notice.  The solicitor general was represented by Sarah Harrington.  She wore a morning coat with tails over a skirt.  I am told all participants in SCOTUS arguments used to wear formal attire.  I read today that Elena Kagan, the newly appointed solicitor general and first woman to hold that office, and rumored to be on the short list for appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, has broken with tradition and appeared before the Court in a dark pants suit.  Other women in her office wear a morning coat at their option.  None of the attorneys in the Lanning case wore formal attire, all were dressed in dark, business suits.

Each side had 30 minutes for argument.  The debtor and government split the time.  I thought the time would go very fast, but it felt like an eternity.  Everyone in the room was excited to be present but the tension was thick.

Clifford White, EOUST executive director, was present as were numerous chapter 13 trustees and other UST personnel.

A larger than normal number of members of the SCOTUS bar were present, I don’t know why.  I would think bankruptcy and tax, the topics of the day, would not be that popular.  Any member of the SCOTUS bar is allowed to come to argument and sit with the bar on a space available basis. NACBA member Dan Press  of Virginia was present.  Mark Neis sat with the bar as did the chapter 13 trustee from Wichita, KS and Gil Weisman of Becket & Lee (eCast attorney).  My daughter and I sat with invited guests right behind the bronze rail.  Each side is allowed six guests.  Hamilton graciously offered us two of his six seats.  He also invited his wife and step-son, Will Griffin, the chapter 13 trustee from Kansas City, Kansas, and the chapter 13 trustee from Maine.  Many people stood in line outside in the rain for the chance to be admitted to observe the argument.

The Courtroom was completely full.  You sit amazingly close to the Justices.  We were on the center aisle about six rows of chairs and two aisles back from the chief justice. Security was very tight and our movement was controlled every step.  We were commanded to remain seated and silent several times.  Hamilton was so close to the justices, he had to physically turn to address the each of them as he was questioned.

Hamilton had a moot court last week at Georgetown Law School before a group of law professors and others from around the area.

Win or lose, Hamilton and his staff attorney, Teresa Rhodd, did a fine job, for which all of us in Kansas can be proud.  They have spent hundreds of hours these past several months preparing.  We were able to find only a half dozen cases from Kansas in the Supreme Court since Brown v. Board of Education in the 1950s.  The Court accepts less than 100 cases per year out of ten thousand or more applications. The odds of a Topeka bankruptcy case before the Supreme Court of the United States is extremely small.

It was a fantastic experience to see an U.S. Supreme Court argument live.   I would recommend it to all of you.

About Jill Michaux

Jill Michaux is a Kansas bankruptcy attorney. She can be found on Google+. She and her partner, Mark Neis, are Topeka's only board certified consumer bankruptcy law specialists.