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

At the end of “The Candidate”, Robert Redford’s title character, having won, famously asks, “What do we do now?”

A similar question can be asked now that the federal district court in Puerto Rico has struck down the Puerto Rico Public Corporation Debt Enforcement and Recovery Act.

In a February 6, 2015 opinion, Judge Besosa rejected enough of Puerto Rico’s ripeness and standing arguments to reach the merits of the plaintiffs’  challenges to the validity of the Recovery Act.  As we had anticipated, Judge Besosa held that the Recovery Act is preempted by Section 903(1) of the federal Bankruptcy Code, which provides that “a State law prescribing a method of composition of indebtedness of [a] municipality may not bind any creditor that does not consent to such composition.”  The Recovery Act contains provisions that purport to permit changes to the debt obligations of eligible Puerto Rico public corporations without the consent of all affected debtholders. The court held that Section 903(1) applies to Puerto Rico, and that it not only invalidates those provisions of the Recovery Act that purport to bind non-consenting creditors, but preempts the Recovery Act entirely.

Puerto Rico enacted the Recovery Act because the federal Bankruptcy Code precludes Puerto Rico’s public corporations from availing themselves of Chapter 9 of the federal Bankruptcy Code to restructure their debts. Puerto Rico’s public officers are now asking themselves the Spanish version of Redford’s question: “Y ahora que hacemos?” Certain creditors of PREPA and other overleveraged Puerto Rico issuers may be asking variations of that question.

Some potential answers:

1)      The Recovery Act may yet recover. In addition to the ripeness and standing issues, Judge Besosa’s opinion rests on a textual analysis of Section 903(1), including the definition of the word “creditor” as used therein and elsewhere in the Bankruptcy Code and its applicability to creditors of an entity that is not a debtor in a federal proceeding. Puerto Rico is likely to appeal the federal district court’s ruling, both as to the ripeness and standing analysis and as to the applicability of Section 903 to Puerto Rico and the Recovery Act. The ruling is certainly a victory for the plaintiff bondholders and takes the Recovery Act off the table for the near future. In addition, Judge Besosa’s discussions of the contract clause and taking clause issues with the Recovery Act highlight the obstacles the Recovery Act has faced from the beginning as legislation that does not benefit from the federal bankruptcy power’s override of the contracts clause. Accordingly, a resurrected version of the Recovery Act, if any, would continue to face substantial legal challenges. But the Recovery Act, or something like it, will remain hovering in the background of any restructuring discussions during the pendency of the likely appeal.

2)      The invalidation of the Recovery Act, whether or not it proves permanent, eliminates the only existing process under which those public entities that would have been eligible to restructure under that legislation could do so over the objections of holdouts.  Both for Puerto Rico and for those creditors who believe that PREPA and/or certain other Puerto Rico issuers are incapable of sustaining their existing debt and must restructure, the invalidation of the Recovery Act may provide additional impetus to try to persuade the U.S. Congress to amend the Bankruptcy Code to authorize Puerto Rico to authorize its public corporations, or certain of its public corporations, to file for bankruptcy under Chapter 9. Such legislation was filed in the prior session of Congress and its viability may be somewhat enhanced by Judge Besosa’s ruling.

3)      While any Recovery Act appeal wends its way through the higher courts, and while any  legislation to amend the federal Bankruptcy Code seeks to wend its way through Congress, PREPA and PREPA’s creditors, and any other Puerto Rico issuers who seek debt relief and their creditors, will need to negotiate without a forum, without a final arbiter, and without the ability to impose a majority or supermajority consensus on holdouts. That process can be a messy and difficult one, but not necessarily an impossible one. In contrast to Robert Redford’s most recent movie, the working title for the as-yet-unfinished movie about Puerto Rico and its creditors remains All Is Not Lost.