Supreme Court Erases Legal Precedent for Auto Bailout

On Monday the Supreme Court released its last orders for the calendar year. Of particular note – apart from the non-release of the long-awaited decision in the Citizens United campaign finance case – the Court dismissed the cert petition in Indiana State Police Pension Trust v. Chrysler LLC as moot and vacated the underlying Second Circuit opinion. While this is not the ideal outcome – particularly for the Indiana creditors – it is in its own way an important decision preserving the integrity of bankruptcy law.

To recap: In January, Chrysler stood on the brink of insolvency. Purporting to act under the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act, the Treasury Department extended the car company a $4 billion loan using funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Still in a bad financial situation, Chrysler initially proposed an out-of-court reorganization plan that would fully repay all of Chrysler’s secured debt.

The Treasury rejected this proposal and instead insisted on a plan that would completely eradicate Chrysler’s secured debt, hinging billions of dollars in additional TARP funding on Chrysler’s acquiescence. When Chrysler’s first lien lenders refused to waive their secured rights without full payment, the Treasury devised a scheme by which Chrysler, instead of reorganizing under a chapter 11 plan, would sell its assets free of all secured interests to a shell company, the New Chrysler.

Chrysler was thus able to avoid the “absolute priority rule,” which provides that a court should not approve a bankruptcy plan unless it is “fair and equitable” to all classes of creditors. The forced reorganization amounted to the Treasury redistributing value from senior, secured creditors to debtors and junior, unsecured creditors. The government should not have been allowed, through its own self-dealing, to hand-pick certain creditors for favorable treatment at the expense of others who would otherwise enjoy first lien priority.

While the Court’s ruling prevents the creditors from collecting what would have otherwise been considered their rightful portion of the liquidation, it also erases a terrible precedent from the federal judiciary’s books and reaffirms years of settled bankruptcy law. A decision upholding the Second Circuit’s ruling would have undercut the established practices of bankruptcy and introduced even more uncertainty into a still-uneasy market.

To put it more broadly, the bankruptcy laws are in place to ensure that debts are paid in an established and fair manner and not at the whim of whatever political actors happen to be in power at the time. Taking away that assurance stifles investment and thereby hurts the economy.

Cato joined the Washington Legal Foundation, the Allied Educational Foundation, and George Mason law professor Todd Zywicki on a brief supporting the creditors’ petition that you can read here.  And you can watch Cato’s policy forum on the auto bailout here.