Last Monday, the Supreme Court heard argument in In re Ransom. A colleague on the law faculty whose forte is not bankruptcy asked me about the case in advance. He was showing an Australian law professor the sights in D.C. on the First Monday in October and Ransom was on the docket. My colleague expressed disappointment that the First Monday docket was clogged with an unexciting bankruptcy case. I told him that Ransom is exciting to me.
The case is about the meaning of a hideously drawn provision that appeared in the Bankruptcy Code as part of the 2005 Reform Act-- the so-called "means test" that governs a debtor's eligibility for discharge of debt under chapter 7 and chapter 13. In simple terms, a consumer debtor is eligible for debt forgiveness if her income is less than the Census Bureau-reported median income for her state. If her income is greater than the median income, then she is eligible for relief in a chapter 7 liquidation case, only if she doesn't have the "means" to pay down her debts over time while paying her current living expenses. If she wants to keep her property and pay down her debts over time, she is eligible for debt forgiveness in a chapter 13 case only if she pays creditors from her income each month the amount she has the "means" to pay. In both settings, "means" means the difference between the debtor's "current monthly income" and her expenses.
The Code provides a staggeringly unreadable list of the expenses that are to be considered for purposes of this comparison. Rather than relegate to the bankruptcy judge the role of determining which expenses that the debtor actually incurs are "reasonable and necessary" as was the judge's role before the 2005 Reform Act, the Code now describes the expenses that the debtor may deduct by reference to IRS published guidelines for agents (the National and Local Standards) who are trying to settle tax delinquencies with taxpayers based on the amount the taxpayer can realistically pay each month and survive.
In Ransom, the dispute was over the amount the debtor could count as an expense of car ownership. Particularly, the question was whether the debtor should be able to count the amount referenced in the Local Standards for a loan or lease payment even if he owns his car free and clear and doesn't actually make any loan or lease payments. In short, does the Code mean that the debtor should be credited with expenses he doesn't actually have for the purpose of determining his "means?" The bankruptcy court held that a debtor has to have some actual car payment expenses before he can claim the IRS plug amount as an expense. The Ninth Circuit affirmed contributing to a split in the circuits on this issue.
I felt it was important to explain to my colleague why this case is so interesting. So I cut to the chase. The "plain meaning" reading in this case is not easy to see because the statute is so badly drawn. The debtor will benefit from a reading that gives her the largest expense total and the largest deduction from income in calculating her "means." The trustee for the benefit of unsecured creditors like MBNA, the unsecured creditor who paid lawyers to take this case all the way to the Supreme Court, will benefit from a reading that limits debtors to the smallest expense total.
So, my colleague, an afficionado of legislative process and statutory interpretation, watched the argument and concluded that the Justices seemed stumped. The interpretation of the statute offered by both sides led to at least two completely absurd scenarios each. The one indisputable fact is that the statute let everyone down and the Court got the dirty job of cleaning up the mess.
My colleague offered the idea of a post legislative, pre-judicial clean up team -- a panel of "special masters" with bankruptcy expertise who would take the legislation that extrudes out of the Congressional sausage maker, consult with the ALI, lenders, borrowers, practitioners and academics, and draft a recommendation for courts who are put to the task of interpreting and applying the legislation.
My reaction to this idea was not good. I am already footing the bill for Congress and I do not want to pay for another layer of government workers who would be subject to the same political pressures that render the officials we elect to make law obviously and completely incapable of doing it. I think that the time for consultation with interest groups, academics, etc. is before the statute is enacted by Congress.
The problem I see is that legislators are hopelessly unmotivated and unable to understand the legislation they enact. The Supreme Court is now the cleanup operation of last resort for all sorts of badly drawn, ill conceived, utterly impractical and inscrutable legislation.
By way of history, as part of the 1994 amendments to the Bankruptcy Code, Congress ordered the creation of the National Bankruptcy Review Commission. This Commission undertook a complete review of the Code and held hearings at which bankruptcy scholars, practitioners and related industry experts had an opportunity to comment. It issued a comprehensive report and reform proposal with a vigorous dissent. Congress entirely ignored all of it. The bankruptcy bar picked to bits the consumer provisions in the legislation that ultimately became the 2005 Reform Act during the years it floated around Congress before it was enacted. Congress ignored it all. And it was easy, because congressmen and senators do not understand anything about the laws they enact. The voices of those who were advocating for technical amendments or otherwise pointing out absurdity in the proposed revisions to the Bankruptcy Code were no more than refrigerator hum. Bankruptcy, tax, administrative law, market regulation, environmental law, you name it -- it's all refrigerator hum.
The problem is easy to see but hard to fix. Bankruptcy policy is fundamental and richly complex. In a simple and broad sense, bankruptcy law describes whose debts may be forgiven. If you stop there, the politics are already hopeless. In debt as in life, sometimes you are the windshield and sometimes you are the bug. Nobody is always for more forgiveness or always for less. So the politics is really in the details. The problem is that as soon as you move past the core function of bankruptcy law into the practical and administrative issues,the core function becomes quickly lost and inaccessible to non-specialists. Instead of considering the basic contours of debt forgiveness directly, the Code provides for exemptions, avoidance powers, claims processes and, as in Ransom, eligibility for relief stated in nearly incomprehensible and arguably absurd terms. Legislators probably don't even think for a second about the macro implications of the law they are enacting: How does this law affect the question of who is forgiven? Rather, legislators tinker around the edges in response to special interest groups whose requests affect the measure of forgiveness in ways that would take at least a 14 week law school course to explain. In short, there are plenty of experts willing to teach members of Congress how changes in the law will or may affect the measure of forgiveness. The problem is the shortage of members of Congress who really want to make the investment necessary to acquire that information.
The second problem is related to the first. Negotiating legislation, like negotiating anything else is expensive. To reduce transaction costs, legislators translate complicated provisions into broad terms. For example, Republicans can sell to their base the idea that the cost of debt forgiveness is borne by people who find a way to live within their means, and thus, it should be harder to discharge debts in bankruptcy. Democrats can sell to their base (what Elizabeth Warren is selling) that the credit card companies are making oodles on consumer debt and they should bear a little pain to make life worth living for working people who hit hard times. The broad principles on which political bargaining occur are so broad that the actual legislation is left to non-legislator staffers and lobbyists who are primarily interested in getting the deal done rather than getting it done in a way that will not appear absurd to a court. The means test language before the Court in Ransom is a small part of a drafting exercise left to drafters who have no stake in the legislation post-enactment.
After the oral argument before the Court in Ransom, who on the Hill is red-faced about the unmissable disrespect for their work? That's right. Nobody. It's a sad indictment of democracy when citizens accept that legislators of all political persuasions are not personally or politically embarrassed by the shoddy quality legislation they impose on the citizens who elect them.