By LEN WEISER-VARON and BILL KANNEL

A few thoughts on Tuesday’s oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in the litigation over whether Puerto Rico’s Public Corporations Debt Enforcement and Recovery Act, an insolvency statute for certain of its government instrumentalities, is void, as the lower federal courts held, under Section 903 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code:

  • Due to Justice Scalia’s death and Justice Alito’s recusal, only 7 Justices heard the case and only 4 votes are needed for a majority.  Almost all of the questioning at oral argument came from Justices Sotomayor, Kagan and Breyer, plus a couple noteworthy questions from Justice Ginsburg.  With the standard disclaimer that questions at oral argument are not necessarily predictive of a Justice’s votes, it seems clear from the questioning that Justice Sotomayor will vote to reinstate the Recovery Act and is the most passionate of the Justices about the issue, and, even if the relatively silent Chief Justice Roberts and the silent Justice Kennedy and Justice Thomas vote to affirm,  the questions and musings of Justices Kagan, Breyer and Ginsburg suggest that Justice Sotomayor could sway them to her position and thereby obtain the 4 votes necessary for reversal of the First Circuit’s holding and reinstatement of the legislation.
  • All that can be said about the actual statutory language that the Supreme Court will interpret is that the drafting does not represent Congress’s finest work.  (Justice Breyer provided the only moment of merriment on the Scalia-less panel when, after a suggestion that the opaque statutory language requires a contextual reading, he responded, “That may be, but I can’t say that an ‘airplane’ means a horse.”) There is no relevant legislative history, so it is not clear that Congress, when it amended the Bankruptcy Code to exclude Puerto Rico’s (and the District of Columbia’s) government instrumentalities from Chapter 9 eligibility, thought about the question of how that would or should impact Puerto Rico’s and D.C.’s right to enact their own insolvency statutes.  So while nominally a statutory interpretation case, this is, on a technical level, almost purely a “what makes the most sense” case.
  • The First Circuit was persuaded that it would make no sense for Congress to act affirmatively to withhold from Puerto Rico the right to authorize its insolvent instrumentalities to file for bankruptcy under Chapter 9, while intending that Puerto Rico have the right to authorize such filings under some insolvency statute of its own creation.  That seems almost unassailably correct; basic common sense suggests that whatever distrust of Puerto Rico must have motivated Congress to close the door to Puerto Rico’s ability to authorize its instrumentalities to file under Chapter 9 cannot be reconciled with Congressional intent that Puerto Rico be allowed to authorize such filings under its own version of an insolvency statute that might be identical to, or differ in unpredictable ways from, Chapter 9.
  • However, Puerto Rico seems to have gotten some traction before the Supreme Court with the proposition (which the First Circuit correctly rejected) that Congress cannot have intended to leave Puerto Rico’s instrumentalities in a “no man’s land” where they had no access to Chapter 9 and no access to an alternative insolvency regime. The short answer is that there is a high likelihood that Congress, if it had an intent on the matter when it eliminated Puerto Rico instrumentalities from Chapter 9 eligibility, precisely intended that Puerto Rico instrumentalities would not have access to an insolvency process unless and until Congress specifically authorized the applicable process (as it is currently being pressed to do by Puerto Rico and the U.S. Treasury.)  Such federal control would be and is consistent with Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. territory, however it is labeled in the Bankruptcy Code.
  • Justice Sotomayor also raised the issue of whether the principles of federalism and state sovereignty that make the federal Chapter 9 available only to instrumentalities of states that have elected into the Chapter 9 regime would be violated if Chapter 9 were the only insolvency regime available to a state, i.e. whether interpreting Section 903 of the Bankruptcy Code as applicable to states that have not exercised such option (as well as to Puerto Rico and D.C., which have no such option to exercise) would be unduly coercive and raise Tenth Amendment issues.  The First Circuit left that question unaddressed on the grounds that Puerto Rico is not protected by the Tenth Amendment.  But as Section 903 applies to any “State”, if the Supreme Court interprets it, and its restriction on a “State’s” ability to enact insolvency legislation for its instrumentalities, as applying to Puerto Rico, it also will be interpreting it as applying to the 50 states, including those that have not opted to authorize their instrumentalities to use Chapter 9.  Whether or not any of the other Justices would view such an interpretation as presenting a substantial Tenth Amendment concern cannot be discerned from the oral argument, but the Court often interprets ambiguous statutes in a manner that avoids a potential constitutional concern, and Sotomayor’s apparent invocation of that principle may be targeted at her fellow Justices as a counterweight to the proposition that Congress, in eliminating Chapter 9 access for Puerto Rico’s instrumentalities,  must have intended to preclude any access to bankruptcy by such  instrumentalities absent direct authorization by Congress.  In divining what Congress intended by Section 903, Sotomayor appears to be suggesting, the Supreme Court cannot focus myopically on what Congress would have intended for Puerto Rico.
  •  As we have previously discussed, even if the Court revives the Recovery Act, the Recovery Act is, from Puerto Rico’s perspective, a problematic, and possibly ineffective, insolvency process.  A principal purpose of bankruptcy is to adjust, restructure and impair contracts.  The federal government is not subject to the constitutional restriction on impairment of contracts, and therefore the federally-enacted Chapter 9 process can impair debts and contracts.  Puerto Rico, and therefore its Recovery Act, have been held to be subject to the constitutional restriction on impairment of contracts.  A couple of the Justices noted this constraint, both in questioning what benefit Puerto Rico would derive from a reinstatement of the statute and as a potential protection that Congress might have taken into account if it did not intend to preclude non-federal insolvency law.  If the Recovery Act is reinstated and used by Puerto Rico, one can expect years of litigation on the question of whether any debt adjustment (or other contract adjustment) effected thereunder does or doesn’t meet the high bar of public necessity and unavailability of reasonable alternatives required for such adjustment not to constitute an unconstitutional “impairment.”
  • Puerto Rico’s persistence in seeking reinstatement of the Recovery Act reflects a calculus that an insolvency process that produces a legally questionable and potentially unenforceable result is better than no process, and provides creditors more incentive for consensual resolutions than no process.  Chapter 9 eligibility for Puerto Rico’s instrumentalities, and, if Congress were to grant it, “super Chapter 9“ eligibility for Puerto Rico itself,  would clearly, in Puerto Rico’s view, constitute a far more advantageous and conclusive process.  However, there is some risk to Puerto Rico that if the Supreme Court reinstates the Recovery Act before Congress acts on federal legislation to address Puerto Rico’s financial woes, the revival of the Recovery Act would undercut any Chapter 9 momentum, leaving Puerto Rico with its legally wobbly Recovery Act.  But Puerto Rico appears willing to gamble that the Supreme Court will issue its decision after Congress has done whatever it will do, and, in any event, to believe that a constitutionally vulnerable local bankruptcy statute in the hand is worth a constitutionally bulletproof federal bankruptcy statute in the bush.

 

By LEN WEISER-VARON and BILL KANNEL

Last Tuesday, Puerto Rico sold its much-ballyhooed $3.5 billion in non-investment grade general obligation bonds.  Two days later, two legislators in Puerto Rico’s Senate filed a bill which, if enacted, would permit insolvency filings by Puerto Rico’s public corporations in Puerto Rico’s territorial trial court.  The juxtaposition of the two events has some bond investors crying foul.  But though the timing of the insolvency bill must have Puerto Rico’s investor relations personnel swallowing ibuprofen, Puerto Rico itself is not a “public corporation” and the proposed legislation would not establish a process for an insolvency filing affecting the territory’s general obligation bonds.  (Although the legislation authorizes a bankruptcy-like process, the process is referred to in this post as “insolvency”  to distinguish it from the federal bankruptcy process.)

The proposed legislation is of greater interest to holders of bonds issued by Puerto Rico’s public corporation bond issuers.  To the extent the legislation responds to requests by one or more public corporations, it is not good news for bondholders, as it suggests that some of those public corporations may be actively considering an insolvency-related process.  However, press reports indicate that Puerto Rico’s Governor opposes enactment of this particular legislation.  Accordingly, the existence of the Senate bill, and its details, may deserve attention not so much because of any likelihood that such an insolvency process will be implemented in the short term, but rather as a case study in the legal complexity of any attempted restructuring of Puerto Rico’s governmental debt.

Whether legislation of the type represented by the Puerto Rico Senate bill, if enacted, would be constitutional would likely involve years of litigation following an attempt by any public corporation to avail itself of such protection as it provides.  As suggested in the bill’s preamble, Puerto Rico’s authority to create its own non-federal process to address insolvent public corporations is uncertain.  Puerto Rico’s instrumentalities are excluded from the definition of “municipality” under Chapter 9, which governs municipal bankruptcies.  Whether under the U.S. Constitution’s supremacy and bankruptcy clauses the existence of Chapter 9 preempts Puerto Rico’s ability to establish its own bankruptcy-like process for its public corporations, or whether Puerto Rico’s exclusion from Chapter 9  suggests that Congress did not intend such preemption, is the main constitutional question.  Further complicating the resolution of that question is Puerto Rico’s status as a federally-approved U.S. territory that has been recognized as akin to a “state” for at least some constitutional purposes by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

If legislation of the type filed in Puerto Rico’s Senate were enacted, and if the constitutionality of such a non-federal insolvency process in Puerto Rico were ultimately upheld, such legislation by its terms limits a public corporation’s ability to restructure its debts.   The legislation precludes a “significant” impairment of the public corporation’s major contractual obligations unless it is reasonable and necessary to serve an important public purpose.  The legislation defines an “important public purpose” as including (somewhat perplexingly) the obligation to comply with existing contracts, but, perhaps more significantly, as including “the stability and continuity of essential public infrastructure, utilities and services.”   In other words,  the bill would create a “bankruptcy-lite” statute designed to permit approval of restructuring plans only to the extent they satisfy the federal constitutional test for impairment of contracts.  The “contracts clause” of the U.S. constitution has been judicially interpreted not as a prohibition on contract impairment but rather as a balancing test under which contracts may be impaired if there is sufficient public necessity for doing so and there are no less onerous means of addressing such public necessity .

The limits on what can be achieved under the proposed legislation are compelled by the fact that, if it were enacted, in contrast to Chapter 9 it would not be enacted under Congress’s constitutional power to provide a bankruptcy process.  Whereas the constitutionally-sanctioned federal bankruptcy act expressly contemplates certain judicially approved contract impairments to give a debtor a “fresh start”, a Puerto Rican public corporation insolvency statute not enacted pursuant to the constitutional bankruptcy provisions would need to comply with the anti-impairment provisions of the U.S. Constitution.  Accordingly, any plan under a Puerto Rico statute that impairs bondholder rights would be subject to challenge on whether the statute’s definition of “important public purpose”  correctly incorporates the federal constitutional balancing test for permissible contract impairment and, if so, whether that test has been properly applied in the context of any particular impairment by any particular bonding authority of particular bondholder rights.   This is an inefficient process relative to the federal bankruptcy statute, which provides a process for bankruptcy plan approval that obviates the need to address on a case by case basis whether an approved contract impairment is constitutional.

The bill introduced in Puerto Rico’s Senate reinforces a risk already faced by Puerto Rico bondholders that Puerto Rico may seek by direct legislation or by legislatively-established process to impair to the extent constitutionally permissible the contractual rights of bondholders of insolvent bonding authorities.  That risk is already playing itself out for a different class of Puerto Rico’s creditors, its public employees and teachers, in legislation imposing certain pension cuts and in court challenges to such legislation.  If there is good news for Puerto Rico’s public corporation bondholders in the specific legislation filed in the Puerto Rico Senate, it is that the insolvency process outlined in such legislation, unlike the federal bankruptcy statute,  lacks a “cramdown” provision and would require approval of any restructuring plan by 75% in amount of affected creditors.  In other words, any cutbacks in bondholder rights under the proposed legislation would, in most conceivable instances, require the consent of a substantial proportion of the bondholders.