Bankruptcy Power – Sturges v. Crowninshield, 17 U.S. 122 (1819) and Ogden v. Saunders, 25 U.S. 213 (1827)

Shortly after the first person mixed her labor with a thing and called it “mine,” some person furnished property to another, together with an obligation to return it. With that, the problems of debtor and creditor were born.

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“One would start with great confidence that he could convince any sane child that the simpler propositions of Euclid are true; but, nevertheless, he would fail, utterly, with one who should deny the definitions and axioms. The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society.”
– Abraham Lincoln, Letter to Henry L. Pierce in 1859

Euclid’s geometry begins with five postulates or axioms (e.g., the first postulate, a straight line may be drawn between any two points) that cannot be demonstrated from other principles. The axioms to which Lincoln refers are, of course, the “self-evident” propositions in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created and equal and entitled to inalienable rights. Just as a right triangle cannot be comprehended if the first postulate of Euclid is denied, to Lincoln’s understanding a free society cannot be constructed if Jefferson’s postulates of equality and inalienable right are denied.

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The Great Society Speech

President Lyndon Johnson delivered the Great Society speech at the University of Michigan in May of 1964. Superficially, the Great Society speech is a typical modern speech, an agenda of platitudinous and pragmatic goals. More deeply, the Great Society speech represents a dramatic rhetorical reorientation of the United States.

Ambitious American political speeches invoke the founding. And the Great Society Speech is no exception, alluding to the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of Independence sets forth both the basis Read more

Amendment XIV:

1: All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.


2: Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice-President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.


3: No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.


4: The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.


5: The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

After the Civil War came the Reconstruction Amendments.  Thinking about the Civil War leads to thinking about the compromises in the Constitution over slavery, which in turn leads to thinking about the Declaration of Independence.  The Declaration embodied the principles that were compromised, “the proposition that all men are created equal.”  The Reconstruction Amendments in a sense constitutionalize the promise of the Declaration and represent a “new birth of freedom,” eliminating the compromises in the Constitution over slavery.  While the 13th Amendment prohibits de jure slavery and the 15th Amendment secures voting rights, the 14th Amendment is as a guaranty against de facto slavery.

The Constitution of 1789 contained a few key limits on state action.  No state could enter into treaties, coin money, pass bills of attainder or ex post facto laws, impair contracts or confer nobility, impose tariffs, conduct foreign policy or make war.  Citizens of each state were entitled to the privileges and immunities of citizens in the several states, but states had the power to determine who was a citizen.  Every state was guaranteed a Republican form of government.

States could make laws with respect to almost any other subject matter, and enforce them as they saw fit, subject only to the state constitution.  The states had broad latitude to shape their laws, to determine issues with respect to fairness and rights, and therewith shape the habits – the virtues and vices – of their peoples.  This latitude included, by intention, the power to impose and protect slavery (and by extension other social and political perversions, short of monarchical government).  The 14th Amendment fundamentally changed this.

Section 1 of the 14th Amendment reads:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

The citizenship clause extinguished the ante bellum issues created by Dred Scott v. Sanford (1854) on questions of citizenship.  The privileges and immunities clause placed alien and resident persons in a state on equal footing.  The due process clause guaranteed fair procedure in an actions under state law. The equal protection clause provided for federal oversight as to the equal application of laws to persons within each state.  Additionally section 2 of the 14th Amendment eliminated the three-fifths compromise provisions regarding apportionment of representatives.

As a federal guaranty of certain rights, the 14th Amendment subjects states to federal supervision with respect to fairness and basic rights, whether or not state constitutions already provide such guarantees.  That oversight has provides the federal government – in particular the federal judiciary – with great power to shape the institutions and character of people where once the states had almost exclusive authority.

Judicial construction of the 14th Amendment has changed over time and with it the direction of federal influence over state affairs.  Cases such as Lochner v. New York (1905) and Adkins v. Children’s Hospital (1923) upheld “freedom of contract” as a protected right until the doctrine was reversed in West Coast Hotel v. Parrish (1937).  Equal protection case Brown v. Board of Education (1954) profoundly changed – indeed rescued — the American social landscape, dismantling racial segregation. Equal protection case Hernandez v. Texas (1954) created protected classes of racial and ethnic groups.  Through 14th Amendment cases the First, Second, Fourth, portions of the Fifth, Sixth and Eighth Amendments have incorporated against the states under the doctrine of “substantive due process.”

Also through the 14th Amendment, the judiciary has incorporated rights against the states that are implied by “penumbras” and “emanations” of other express Constitutional provisions.  For example, Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) established a right to privacy which limited the right of a state to prohibit the use of contraceptives.  And there is Roe v. Wade (1973), a 14th Amendment case, famously establishing a national rule over the regulation of abortion, where previously each state had set its own rules, including prohibiting abortion in many states.  These last two cases raise an important question.  Was the 14th Amendment intended to displace the state legislatures with the nine justices of the Supreme Court to the extent it has in practice?

J. Eric Wise is a partner in the law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, where he practices restructuring and finance


Amendment VII:

In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

If you have good facts, pound the facts; if you have good law, pound the law; if you have nothing, pound the table.  Aside from the good rule of focusing attention on the areas where one’s case has strength, advocacy, as a form of rhetoric, also requires knowing your audience.  In American criminal and civil procedure, where there is a jury, the jury is a trier of fact and the judge makes determinations of law.

The jury is a legal invention that can be traced back to at least 11th Century England, when the Domesday Book was assembled from information gathered by juries empaneled to catalogue property holdings throughout the realm.  Juries of local people were assumed to be familiar with the local facts that would be the basis of the catalogue.

As the use of juries expanded, juries came to be considered a bulwark against tyranny, because while magistrates might align with a king, a jury of peers would check the king’s power at trial.  The Bill of Rights protects jury trials in civil and criminal matters.

The Sixth Amendment provides “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to . . . trial by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law.”  The Seventh Amendment provides “In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of common law.”

While most state constitutions have jury clauses, the Supreme Court has determined that the Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury in criminal cases extends to the states through the operation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment under the doctrine known as “substantive due process.”  However, the right to a trial in the state and district where the crime is committed, known as the Vicinage Clause, is not incorporated into the Fourteenth Amendment against the states.  The right to a jury trial in a civil case is also not protected in state proceedings, unless protected under state law.

In jury trials, judges do not try questions of fact.  Rather judges determine questions of law, including questions regarding the procedures by which the facts are developed in court.  Judges further instruct the jury as to what is the law to which the facts are to be applied.  In certain cases, juries may refuse to determine the facts at all and engage in what is known as jury nullification to satisfy its own views of what the law should be in the particular case.  Arguments run here and there as to whether this is a check and balance of the justice system or whether it is a dereliction of the duties of jurors.

In certain cases and courts the judge is both the trier of fact and the trier of law.  Commercial parties frequently waive the right to a jury trial.  Administrative courts, as administrators, and bankruptcy courts, as courts of equity, largely do not employ juries.  This is in part based on the opinion that the subject matter of administrative law and commercial issues may be too sophisticated for a jury.  Left and Right take varying and perhaps contradictory positions on this.  Some on the Right advocate for removal of juries in medical malpractice cases.  The plaintiffs bar howls.  The Left admires administrative law and great bureaucracies.  They call it job creation.  Almost all commercial interests are satisfied that juries are generally absent from involvement in bankruptcy cases, which require rapid determinations and understanding of complex financial issues.

As usual, Ronald Reagan may have put it best.  In his First Inaugural Address he said first:  “[W]e have been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people.  But if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?” and then he said “Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it is not my intention to do away with government. It is, rather, to make it work—work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back.”

J. Eric Wise is a partner in the law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, where he practices restructuring and finance.

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In that funny movie, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a woman is tried for the crime of being a witch by placing her on a scale to see if she weighs more than a duck.  Laugh now.  In 9th Century England, procedure was scarcely better.  Commonplace were absurdities such as the “ordeal,” where guilt or innocence might be determined by burning the accused with boiling water or a hot iron, trial by battle – including the use of retained champions – and “compurgation,” the testing of witnesses by a ritualistic chain of oaths which if completed proved innocence or if broken proved guilt.

In 1215 English nobles forced King John to place his seal on the Magna Carta at Runnymede.  That document stated in clause 39 “No freeman shall be taken, or imprisoned, or disseized, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any way harmed—nor will we go upon or send upon him—save by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.”  It was not until 1354 that clause 39 was re-codified, including “due process of law” in lieu of  “save by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.”

The Constitution originally had no bill of rights.  Federalists argued a bill of rights was more appropriate to an all-powerful monarch, subject only to enumerated rights, than to a limited government, having only the powers vested in it by the people.  Yet, to co-opt the opposition, James Madison introduced in the First Congress a bill of rights.  Embedded in the Fifth Amendment are the words “nor shall any person be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.”

“No, no!” said the Queen in Alice in Wonderland.  “Sentence first — verdict afterwards.”  Due process is in the least a guaranty of procedural fairness. As such, due process includes, inter alia, prohibitions against vagueness, the right to notice and a meaningful hearing at a meaningful time, and decisions supported by evidence with law and findings of fact explained.  Exigencies and circumstances affect the extent of procedural requirements through balancing tests.  In circumstances requiring emergency injunctive relief, minimal notice, if any, is required.  Due process is not the same as judicial process.  Citizen affiliates of Al Qaeda beware, the executive may kill you without a trial.

Substantive due process is perhaps of a more controversial sort.  Under the doctrine of substantive due process, the clause implies unwritten rights denying, in certain circumstances, the power to enact legislation – or otherwise act – to deprive life, liberty or property even with fair procedural application.  Legislation that the judiciary finds inherently arbitrary may be voided on substantive due process grounds.

Readers of the Declaration of Independence know that super-legal rights do self-evidently exist and are the source of the authority of the people to govern themselves, but it is hardly a straight path from A to B that it is the role of the judiciary to give natural rights expression as positive law.  Further, substantive due process proponents nowadays do not hang their hat on a natural rights peg.  Compare the language of Justice Samuel Case in Calder v. Bull (1798) regarding the “principles of the social compact” to that of the “penumbral rights” of Griswold v. Connecticut (1965).  In any event, both supporters and detractors alike would be disingenuous to deny that this second sort of “due process” vests somewhat breathtaking power in the judiciary, and raises the critique that by substantive due process legislation may be made without legislative process.

It is important to remember that the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment restricts only federal power.  Consequently, since the ratification of the Reconstruction Amendments, applications of substantive due process under the Fifth Amendment have been limited to hard to scratch places where the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment does not reach, such as the territories and the District of Columbia.  It would not be fair, however, to deny substantive due process under the Fifth Amendment some negative attention it deserves.  Perhaps the first Supreme Court case to dive deeply into the waters of substantive due process was Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), in which, through layered and abominable errors of reasoning, Justice Taney found in the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment a right to property in other human beings that barred Congress from prohibiting slavery in the territories.

J. Eric Wise is a partner at the law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, practicing restructuring and finance.

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