Bankruptcy Step Zero

Author: 
Douglas G. Baird
Author: 
Anthony Casey

In RadLAX Gateway Hotel, LLC v Amalgamated Bank, the Supreme Court’s statutory interpretation focuses on an emerging theme of its bankruptcy jurisprudence: the proper domain of the bankruptcy judge. While one might expect the Court to approach that question of domain as it has for administrative agencies, that is not the approach taken. This article explores the Court’s approach to bankruptcy’s domain. In doing so, we connect three principal strands of the Court’s bankruptcy jurisprudence. The first strand, embodied in Butner v United States, centers on the idea that the bankruptcy forum must vindicate nonbankruptcy rights. The second, most recently addressed in Stern v Marshall, focuses on the limits of bankruptcy judges in deciding and issuing final judgment on the issues before them. Bankruptcy judges must limit themselves to deciding issues central to the administration of the bankruptcy process. RadLAX is the continuation of a third strand that makes it plain that the Court reads ambiguous provisions of the Bankruptcy Code to narrow the range of decisions over which the bankruptcy judge may exercise her discretion — at least when the exercise of that discretion might impact nonbankruptcy rights. The resulting bankruptcy jurisprudence is in stark contrast with the Court’s approach in administrative law. This paper attempts to make sense of this state of affairs and connect it with the realities of bankruptcy practice today.