A 5-4 Split Affirming the 9th Circuit

May 14th, 2012

Sotomayor writes for the Chief, Scalia, Thomas, and Alito?

Breyer dissents for Kennedy, Ginsburg, and Kagan?

Interesting lineup in some bankruptcy case i don’t care about.

Well I care insofar as it delves into statutory interpretation.

From Sotomayor’s majority opinion, which is Scalia-esque in its focus on text and structure:

The phrase “incurred by the estate” bears a plain and natural reading. See FCC v. AT&T Inc., 562 U. S. ___, ___ (2011) (slip op., at 5) (“When a statute does not define aterm, we typically ‘give the phrase its ordinary meaning’”). To “incur,” one must “suffer or bring on oneself (a liability or expense).” Black’s Law Dictionary 836 (9th ed. 2009); see also Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 1146 (1976) (“to . . . become liable or subject to: bring downupon oneself ”); Random House Dictionary 722 (1966) (“tobecome liable or subject to through one’s own action; bringupon oneself ”). A tax “incurred by the estate” is a tax forwhich the estate itself is liable. . . . The statutory structure further reinforces our holdingthat petitioners’ postpetition income taxes are not “incurred by the estate.” . . .

Petitioners and the dissent advance several argumentsfor why the postpetition income taxes at issue should be considered “incurred by the estate,” notwithstanding the IRC’s separate taxable entity rules. But none providessufficient reason to overcome the statute’s plain language,context, and structure.

And she calls out legislative history!

To buttress their counterintuitive readings of the text,petitioners and the dissent suggest that there is a long history of treating postpetition taxes as administrativeexpenses entitled to priority. Both point to two legislative Reports accompanying the 1978 enactment of §503. But neither snippet from which they quote is inconsistent with today’s holding,8 and we have cautioned against “allowing ambiguous legislative history to muddy clear statutory language.” Milner v. Department of Navy, 562 U. S. ___, ___ (2011) (slip op., at 9). . . . The dissent concludes otherwise by an inverted analysis.Rather than demonstrate that such claims were treated as §507 priority claims in the first place, the dissent beginswith the single Senator’s stated purpose for the exceptionto that priority scheme. Post, at 7. It then reasons backwards from there, and in the process upsets background norms in both Chapters 12 and 13.

Look to the text! Let Congress fix this mess.

Certainly, there may be compelling policy reasons fortreating postpetition income tax liabilities as discharge- able. But if Congress intended that result, it did not soprovide in the statute. Given the statute’s plain language, context, and structure, it is not for us to rewrite the statute, particularly in this complex terrain of interconnectedprovisions and exceptions enacted over nearly three decades. Petitioners’ position threatens ripple effects beyond this individual case for debtors in Chapter 13 and the broader bankruptcy scheme that we need not invite. As the Court of Appeals noted, “Congress is entirely free to change the law by amending the text.”

Maybe a Scalia clerk sat by designation in Sotomayor’s chambers

Breyer’s dissent is purposive (shocker):

Chapter 12 of the Bankruptcy Code helps family farmers in economic difficulty reorganize their debts without losing their farms. Consistent with the chapter’s purposes, Congress amended §1222(a) of the Code to enable thedebtor to treat certain capital gains tax claims as ordinaryunsecured claims. 11 U. S. C. §1222(a)(2)(A). The Court’s holding prevents the Amendment from carrying out this basic objective. I would read the statute differently, interpreting it in a way that, in my view, both is consistentwith its language and allows the Amendment better toachieve its purposes. . . .

It seems to me unlikely that Congress, having worked on revisions of the Code for many years with the help of Bankruptcy experts, and having considered the Amendment several times over a period of years, would havemade the drafting mistake that the Government and the majority necessarily imply that it made. Moreover, I believe it important that courts interpreting statutes make significant efforts to allow the provisions of congressionalstatutes to function in the ways that that the elected branch of Government likely intended and for which itcan be held democratically accountable.