Bankruptcy judge rejects CalPERS’ claim to protected status

April 3, 2013

By Chris Reed

Bankruptcy - exitAs John Seiler pointed out here Tuesday, Monday’s court ruling by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Christopher Klein isn’t seen as definitive. Yes, the city of Stockton can proceed with its bankruptcy filing. No, Klein doesn’t yet agree with the city’s plan to only short bondholders and not CalPERS, its biggest creditor, as it reorganizes under Chapter 9 of federal bankruptcy law. He explicitly said later that he will decide on its fairness later.

But did Klein make one crucial point in his ruling and comments from the bench? Maybe, and I’m not the only one who thinks so.

Consider this: Every newspaper advance story that I saw before last week’s hearings in Klein’s court spoke of the centrality of the CalPERS argument that promised pensions were protected by the state Constitution, which should take precedence over federal bankruptcy laws which allow federal courts to modify contracts that bankrupt entities have with their creditors.

Pension preservation: State law vs. federal law

So did the most sophisticated legal analysis of Stockton’s pension-protection proposal that I read before Klein’s April 1 ruling. It appeared in January on the Bankruptcy Law Insights blog and was written by bankruptcy expert Ben Feder:

“The issues at stake — whether California state laws protecting public employee pension obligations are pre-empted and superseded by Congress’s Article I, Section 8 authority to establish uniform laws regarding bankruptcy, or are protected under the Tenth Amendment — implicate fundamental issues of federalism, and in all likelihood the Supreme Court will eventually need to resolve the questions being raised regarding the proper balance between state and federal power … .

“The [most] complicated question is whether priorities for unsecured claims created under state law — particularly regarding obligors that are themselves governmental units — can trump the distribution mechanisms of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, and the Code’s underlying purpose of providing similar treatment for similarly situated creditors. Numerous states in addition to California have varying degrees of protection for public employee pension obligations. (Rhode Island, on the other hand, recently took the opposite tack and enacted a law that gave priority to bondholders in the Central Falls Chapter 9 cases.)

“Calpers will argue that the preference under California law for public employee< pension obligations is protected under the Tenth Amendment. San Bernardino’s bond investors will argue that the Bankruptcy Code expressly sets forth the priority of certain types of unsecured claims, that no other unsecured claims are entitled to more favorable treatment, and that California law regarding public employee pension obligations is pre-empted by the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution.”

‘Powers not delegated to the U.S. are reserved to the states’

statesWhat is the relevance of the Tenth Amendment? This is from CalPERS’ counsel:

“The Tenth Amendment provides that the ‘powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states … or to the people.’ This is no minor addendum to the Bill of Rights; this amendment reflects the federal structure of our government.

“This structure allocates and ultimately provides limits on the powers of dual sovereigns — the federal government and the governments of the States. The Tenth Amendment and the principles of federalism preserve the integrity and residual sovereignty of the States, and ensure that the States function as political entities in their own right.”

But at least based on published accounts, the knotty question of deferring to the California Constitution’s pension protections or interpreting the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as preserving the state’s decision-making authority on such matters didn’t seem knotty at all to bankruptcy Judge Klein.

Klein depicted CalPERS as a “garden-variety creditor” -– not one in a protected class.

He also said that going forward, he “is going to have a difficult time confirming a [bankruptcy reorganization plan] over the objection of unfair discrimination.” That’s a reference to Wall Street bondholders’ objecting to CalPERS being insulated from any of the pain facing other creditors. That’s another way of saying he rejects the idea that CalPERS is in a protected class.

Complex question — or not even a close call?

So instead of being a complex, challenging legal issue, Klein doesn’t appear to see this as a close call at all: Federal bankruptcy law supersedes the California Constitution, and the Tenth Amendment doesn’t shield CalPERS either.

I welcome any counter interpretation in the comments. And I acknowledge that an appeals court could completely disagree with Klein and go in another direction.

But I also think there is a chance that April 1, 2013, is remembered as a turning point in how Chapter 9 allows local governments to deal with their immense pension debts. We’ll see.


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