SCOTUS

FURTHER THOUGHTS ON THE RECOVERY ACT ORAL ARGUMENT

 

 

As I was reviewing something a friend sent me, and it got me curious about an old SCOTUS case, Faitoute Iron & Steel Co. v. City of Asbury Park, 316 U.S. 502 (1942). In this case, the SCOTUS allowed a New Jersey law that changed obligations on some municipal bonds. Due to this case, in 1946, Congress amended the Bankruptcy Code to prohibit a state from providing the composition of debts by its municipalities.

 

As I reviewed the case, did some digging and found some interesting facts. In United Trust Company of New York v. New Jersey, 431 U.S. 1, 28 (1977), the issue was the repeal of a statutory covenant made by the two states (New York and New Jersey) that had limited the ability of the Port Authority to subsidize rail passenger transportation from revenues and reserves. A New Jersey superior court dismissed the complaint after trial, holding that the statutory repeal was a reasonable exercise of New Jersey’s police power and was not prohibited by the Contract Clause, and the New Jersey Supreme Court, affirmed the dismissal of the suit that challenged the provision. The SCOTUS reversed the New Jersey Court and found that the action violated the impairment of contractual obligations. The Court stated as follows:

 

Under the specific composition plan at issue in Faitoute, the holders of revenue bonds received new securities bearing lower interest rates and later maturity dates. This Court, however, rejected the dissenting bondholders’ Contract Clause objections. The reason was that the old bonds represented only theoretical rights; as a practical matter the city could not raise its taxes enough to pay off its creditors under the old contract terms. The composition plan enabled the city to meet its financial obligations more effectively. “The necessity compelled by unexpected financial conditions to modify an original arrangement for discharging a city’s debt is implied in every such obligation for the very reason that thereby the obligation is discharged, not impaired.” Id., at 511, 62 S.Ct. at 1134. Thus, the Court found that the composition plan was adopted with the purpose and effect of protecting the creditors, as evidenced by their more than 85% approval. Indeed, the market value of the bonds increased sharply as a result of the plan’s adoption.

 

It is clear that the instant case involves a much more serious impairment than occurred in Faitoute. No one has suggested here that the States acted for the purpose of benefiting the bondholders, and there is no serious contention that the value of the bonds was enhanced by repeal of the 1962 covenant. Appellees recognized that it would have been impracticable to obtain consent of the bondholders for such a change in the 1962 covenant, Brief for Appellees 97-98, even though only 60% approval would have been adequate. See n. 10, supra. We therefore conclude that repeal of the 1962 covenant cannot be sustained on the basis of this Court’s prior decisions in Faitoute and other municipal bond cases.

 

This narrowing of the Faitoute doctrine has been recognized by other courts. In In Re Detroit, 504 B.R. 97, 144-45 (B. E. D. Mich 2013) Judge Rhodes had the same view as did the Court in In Re Jefferson County, 465 B.R. 243, 293 n. 21 (B. N. D. Alabama). The Supreme Court of Illinois in Harding, Inc. v. Village of Mount Prospect, 99 Ill.2d 96, 103-104 (1983) held in a similar fashion and said:

 

In our judgment the opinion of the United States Supreme Court in United States Trust Co. v. New Jersey (1977), 431 U.S. 1, 97 S.Ct. 1505, 52 L.Ed.2d 92, is dispositive of this case, for the circumstances there considered insufficient to sustain legislative alteration of contractual obligations were substantially more compelling than here. In that case, the States of New York and New Jersey, by a 1962 statutory covenant, limited the ability of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to divert, for purposes of subsidizing rail-passenger transportation, certain revenues and reserves previously pledged as security for bonds issued by the Port Authority. Concurrent legislation in both States some 12 years later purported to retroactively repeal the earlier covenant. That legislation was attacked as impermissibly impairing the obligations of the Authority bonds issued prior to repeal. While the State court held the repealing legislation was a reasonable exercise of the State’s police power (United States Trust Co. v. State (1976), 69 N.J. 253, 353 A.2d 514), the Supreme Court reversed on the ground that the 1974 repealer statute was an unconstitutional impairment of the Port Authority’s contract with its bondholders. In reaching this conclusion, the court reviewed at length the history of the contracts clause and noted that it has upheld State legislation impairing contracts in very few cases. Only once in this century, in the case of Faitoute Iron & Steel Co. v. City of Asbury Park (1942), 316 U.S. 502, 62 S.Ct. 1129, 86 L.Ed. 1629, has the court upheld a statute that impaired contract rights of municipal bondholders. In that case, the challenged legislation permitted a bankrupt local government to go into receivership, but it also provided significant protections for all creditors: any bankruptcy repayment plan required approval of 85% of all creditors, and nonconsenting creditors were to be bound by the plan only after a State court determination that the municipality could not otherwise pay its creditors and that the repayment plan was in the best interest of all creditors.

 

Only in one of the respondents merits briefs is Faitoute discussed in this fashion. At page 28 of Franklin California’s brief this issue is discussed. In addition, in Franklin California v. PR, 85 F.Supp.3d 577, 606 (D.P.R. 2015) Judge Besosa discussed the case and said:

 

The United States Supreme Court has long held that the Contract Clause prohibits states from passing laws, like the Recovery Act, that authorize the discharge of debtors from their obligations. See Ry. Labor Execs.’ Ass’n, 455 U.S. at 472 n. 14, 102 S.Ct. 1169 (“[T]he Contract Clause prohibits the States from enacting debtor relief laws which discharge the debtor from his obligations.”); Stellwagen v. Clum, 245 U.S. 605, 615, 38 S.Ct. 215, 62 L.Ed. 507 (1918) (“It is settled that a state may not pass an insolvency law which provides for a discharge of the debtor from his obligations.”); Sturges, 17 U.S. at 199 (Contract Clause prohibits states from introducing into bankruptcy laws “a clause which discharges the obligations the bankrupt has entered into.”).

 

The Commonwealth Legislative Assembly cites Faitoute Iron & Steel Co. v. City of Asbury Park, New Jersey, 316 U.S. 502, 62 S.Ct. 1129, 86 L.Ed. 1629 (1942), as support for the Recovery Act’s “constitutional basis.” Recovery Act, Stmt. of Motives, § C. In Faitoute, the Supreme Court sustained a state insolvency law for municipalities in the face of a Contract Clause challenge. 316 U.S. at 516, 62 S.Ct. 1129. The state law was narrowly tailored in three important ways: (1) it explicitly barred any reduction of the principal amount of any outstanding obligation; (2) it affected only unsecured municipal bonds that had no real remedy; and (3) it provided only for an extension to the maturity date and a decrease of the interest rates on the bonds. Id. at 504–07, 62 S.Ct. 1129. The Supreme Court was careful to state: “We do not go beyond the case before us. Different considerations may come into play in different situations. Thus we are not here concerned with legislative changes touching secured claims.” Id. at 516, 62 S.Ct. 1129. Unlike the state law in Faitoute, the Recovery Act (1) permits the reduction of principal owed on PREPA bonds, (2) affects secured bonds that have meaningful remedies, including the appointment of a receiver, and (3) permits modifications to debt obligations beyond the extension of maturity dates and adjustment of interest rates. Thus, Faitoute is factually distinguishable and provides no support for the Recovery Act’s constitutionality.

 

What does all this mean? Simple, even if the SCOTUS says that section 903 does not apply to PR since it is not eligible for Chapter 9, after the law clerks review the cases again, they may conclude and so inform the Justices, that the island cannot restructure its debts by affecting bondholders. Of course, the SCOTUS may modify or distinguish United Trust Company of New York to allow the restructuring or it can completely reverse it. On the other hand, since this issue is in one brief and the District Court opinion, the SCOTUS should not simply ignore it. If it does, Judge Besosa would have another issue to declare the Recovery Act unconstitutional.

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Justice Scalia 1936-2016

AScalia2
Antonin Scalia, Associate Justice, 1936-2016
was born in Trenton, New Jersey, March 11, 1936. He married Maureen McCarthy and has nine children – Ann Forrest, Eugene, John Francis, Catherine Elisabeth, Mary Clare, Paul David, Matthew, Christopher James, and Margaret Jane. He received his A.B. from Georgetown University and the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, and his LL.B. from Harvard Law School, and was a Sheldon Fellow of Harvard University from 1960–1961. He was in private practice in Cleveland, Ohio from 1961–1967, a Professor of Law at the University of Virginia from 1967–1971, and a Professor of Law at the University of Chicago from 1977–1982, and a Visiting Professor of Law at Georgetown University and Stanford University. He was chairman of the American Bar Association’s Section of Administrative Law, 1981–1982, and its Conference of Section Chairmen, 1982–1983. He served the federal government as General Counsel of the Office of Telecommunications Policy from 1971–1972, Chairman of the Administrative Conference of the United States from 1972–1974, and Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel from 1974–1977. He was appointed Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 1982. President Reagan nominated him as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, and he took his seat September 26, 1986.

 

A law can be both economic folly and constitutional.” CTS Corp. v. Dynamics Corp. of America, 481 U.S. 69, 96-97 (1987)

Hoy nos enteramos de la muerte de Antonin Scalia, miembro del Tribunal Supremo de Estados Unidos por 30 años. Considerado el intelectual de los conservadores, se distinguió por su sentido del humor durante los argumentos orales y su habilidad para escribir. Escribió muchas decisiones, algunas con las que concuerdo y otras con las que no. Escribió la opinión del Tribunal en District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), reconociendo el derecho a tener armas; United States v. Jones, 132 S. Ct. 945 (2012) prohibiendo el uso de la información de un GPS puesto sin orden para perseguir a un sospechoso , Wal-Mart v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2541 (2011) haciendo más difícil la certificación de pleitos de clase.

 

Aún sus detractores coincidían que su intelecto era incomparable. Para mi la mejor prueba de ello es que su opinión disidente en el caso de U.S. v. Windsor, 570 U.S. ____ (2013) fue utilizada por los Tribunales Federales para declarar inconstitucional las prohibiciones estatales al matrimonio gay.

 

Irónicamente, Scalia era muy buen amigo de la Juez Ginsburg, la doyen de los liberales del SCOTUS. Y le enseñó a la Juez Kagan a cazar. Esa es la actitud de un hombre que entiende que se pueden tener amigos con los cuales se tienen profundas diferencias ideológicas.

 

Hombres como Scalia escasean.

 

Somos menos por su muerte.

 

Que descanse en paz.

 

The @SCOTUSBLOG COLUMN ON PR v. SANCHEZ VALLE

 

 

Today one of the most respected writers on the Supreme Court, Lyle Denniston, and for whom I have the great respect, wrote a piece in SCOTUSBLOG about PR v. Sánchez Valle, a case to be argued on January 13, 2016. Lyle, however, missed a few issues of great importance.

 

He says, “True sovereignty is what they say they want.” I differ. What they want is to say that sovereignty comes from the People of Puerto Rico and not from Congress as the PR Supreme Court and the Obama administration say. Moreover, true sovereignty would be independence according to the Bush, Jr. and Obama administrations Task Force Reports on PR say.

 

Lyle also says, “The Island’s nearly four million people have debated for decades whether to seek statehood, and they still cannot agree whether to try for it.” This is incorrect. In the plebiscite of 2012, the voters rejected by 54% vote against the current status, and for those, 61% voted for statehood. See here and here.

 

Moreover, Lyle seems not to like the idea that a territory is subject to total Control by Congress. This is, however, the state of the law. Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2, does not start as Lyle put is but by saying “Congress shall have the power to dispose of” in reference to territories. In addition, the last two cases to deal with PR’s status, Califano v. Torres, 435 U. S. 1 (1978) and Harris v. Rosario, 446 U.S. 651 (1980), both reaffirm Congressional power over PR except for fundamental rights. And this was after 1952.

 

In addition, Lyle’s narrative of the Sánchez Valle case has to be qualified. The power of the territories to create crimes and prosecute them comes from Congress and since Congress makes federal laws, you cannot accuse a person in both federal and territorial courts for the same crimes. See, Grafton v. U.S., 206 U.S. 333 (1907) and Puerto Rico v. Shell Co., 302 U.S. 253 (1937). But, this doctrine changed in the First Circuit Court of Appeals, which handles federal appeals from PR, from U.S. v. López Andino, 831 F.2d 1164 (1st Cir. 1987) on.

 

The decision in López Andino is peculiar. From the start, at page 1167, Judge Bownes makes clear that the federal crimes are different from the Commonwealth crimes and hence, there is no double jeopardy. The Court could have stopped there, as Judge Torruella’s concurrence points out but Judge Bownes continues for little less than a page to conclude that the Federal Government and Puerto Rico are two different sovereigns. See pages 1167-68. He concludes saying “Puerto Rico’s status is not that of a state in the federal union, but, its criminal laws, like those of a state, emanate from a different source than the federal laws.” Page 1168. Judge Bownes, quoting from Examining Bd. of Eng’rs, Architects and Surveyors v. Flores de Otero, 426 U.S. 572, 594 (1976), continues to argue that Law 600, the Federal Relations Act relevant to PR, gave the PR “the degree of autonomy and independence normally associated with the states of the Union.”

 

By contrast, Judge Torruella’s concurrence with the result makes it clear that double jeopardy did not ensue since the crimes were different and questions the Court’s discussion in the power to prosecute separate from Congressional power. Different from the majority, he spends almost 6 pages explaining his view, which can be synthesized as follows:

 

Not the least of the majority’s errors stem from the fact that it overlooks that the Puerto Rican Federal Relations Act (Pub.L. 600) is merely an act of Congress. It is not a treaty, and certainly not a part of the Constitution. Thus, under well-established constitutional precedent, as an act of Congress it does not bind future Congresses. Like any other act of Congress it may be repealed, modified, or amended at the unilateral will of future Congresses. Thus, as will be further discussed post, the ultimate source of power in Puerto Rico, even after the enactment of P.L. 600, is Congress, a situation that deprives Puerto Rico of the rudiments of sovereignty basic to the application of the “dual sovereignty” rule. (Citations omitted)

 

Judge Torruella continues with citations from the Congressional record where time and again, PR officials tell Congress that even after Law 600 was enacted, it would have the same power over PR as before, see pages 1173 on. The US Senate hearings show that is was “well understood” that the Constitution would have no effect on the territorial stats of the island. During the Senate hearings, the Committee’s legal counsel that “[i]t is our hope and it is the hope of the Government, I think, not to interfere with the relationship but nevertheless the basic power inherent in the Congress of the United States, which no one can take away, is in Congress.” Hearings before the Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs on S.J. Res. 151, 82d Cong., 2d Sess., 40-47 (1952).

 

This shows us that the Andino opinion is not without critics. The 11th Circuit in U.S. v. Sánchez, 992 F.2d 1142 (11th Cir. 1993) (this Circuit covers, among others, the state of Florida) where the Court declined to adopt the Andino opinion and instead was persuaded by Judge Torruella’s concurrence. Judge Hill in his opinion states that Congress is the “source of prosecutorial authority for the territories and for the Federal Government and therefore prosecutions in the territorial courts are not protected by the dual sovereignty doctrine from application of the Double Jeopardy Clause.” US v. Sánchez, at page 1150. He defined the legal question as:

 

Our inquiry does not end here, however. The Florida district court concluded that the reasoning underlying the above-quoted portion of Puerto Rico v. Shell was overridden by the passage of the Puerto Rico Federal Relations Act, Pub.L. 600, ch. 446, 64 Stat. 319 (1950) (codified at 48 U.S.C. § 731 et seq. (1989)), and, implicitly, that Puerto Rico is no longer a territory as that term was understood in the early part of this century. We must decide, therefore, whether the creation of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico pursuant to the Federal Relations Act so changed the status of Puerto Rico that it must now be considered a separate sovereign for the limited purpose of the dual sovereignty exception to the Double Jeopardy Clause. (pages 1050-51)

 

After a careful analysis from pages 1047-1153, Judge Hill concluded as follows:

 

The development of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico has not given its judicial tribunals a source of punitive authority which is independent of the United States Congress and derived from an “inherent sovereignty” of the sort supporting the Supreme Court’s decisions involving the states (Heath, supra) and Native American tribes (Wheeler, supra). Congress may unilaterally repeal the Puerto Rican Constitution or the Puerto Rican Federal Relations Act and replace them with any rules or regulations of its choice. Despite passage of the Federal Relations Act and the Puerto Rican Constitution, Puerto Rican courts continue to derive their authority to punish from the United States Congress and prosecutions in Puerto Rican courts do not fall within the dual sovereignty exception to the Double Jeopardy Clause.

 

It is based on this scenario that the PR Supreme Court decided Sánchez Valle. Interestingly, in the case of Franklin California v. Puerto Rico at page 47, also to be argued soon by the Supreme Court, decided on July 6, Judge Lynch quotes López Andino, but not from the majority opinion but Judge Torruella’s, saying that PR is constitutionally a territory. See also, Davila-Perez v. Lockheed Martin Corp., 202 F.3d 464, 468 (1st Cir. 2000). Maybe a change of heart in the First Circuit.

 

The Federal Government’s intervention, which would make it impossible for it to prosecute those who had been prosecuted first in Puerto Rico for the same crimes, may the preamble to the defense of Financial Control Board proposed by Senator Hatch in December. Let’s see what happens.

 

 

Again, I have the greatest respect for Lyle, but I think he left something of great importance out in this controversy.