Sanctions: Bankruptcy Judges Have Thick Skins – And Sharp Teeth

31 Jul Sanctions: Bankruptcy Judges Have Thick Skins – And Sharp Teeth

Fighting WordsWhen you talk to judges or file paperwork in court, it’s a bad idea to call the judge names or insult them. Not only is it bad form and undignified but, frankly, you’re just asking for it.

This is the lesson handed down July 19, 2013 by the federal court of appeals in St. Louis. The 8th Circuit concluded that a federal bankruptcy judge has the inherent power to protect the judicial system and the court’s own dignity by issuing fines for contempt of court.

In the particular case they heard, the owner of a company in bankruptcy filed documents with the court making various personally-insulting comments aimed at some parties and even the judge (referring to her as a “black-robed bigot” among other things). There were several “problematic” accusations not apparently supported by evidence or even particularly related to the case itself (you can review the opinion in detail here). The bankruptcy judge ordered her to come to court and explain herself or risk fines of $1,000 per allegation (there were 10 “problematic” comments). Instead of appearing in court, she filed paperwork apparently reiterating the accusations (not really a good strategy). The judge then fined her $500 per comment.

The court of appeals actually agreed with the company president in one respect: It ruled that bankruptcy court rule 9011 does not allow for sanctions of people other than lawyers, law firms, or parties to a case. So the president of a bankrupt company did not count. But the court ruled judges do have inherent power to take the actions necessary to control their courtrooms, maintain the dignity of the judicial process and the civility of the process. In other words, the robes and gavel are not just for show.

The irony of course is that the fine was only half what the judge threatened to levy. And that despite receiving more of the same in response to the order to appear in court. The average person might consider being called a “bigot” fighting words. And most lawyers would be happy to escape with their licenses intact if they said such things to a judge.

So this particular case is an object lesson in a couple of ways. First, check your personal issues at the door and don’t personally attack judges for doing their jobs. And, second, despite being well provoked to issue serious punishment, most judges do keep their cool and do their job with an even temper. Sadly, in this case the judge, Nancy Dreher, did not live to see her order vindicated by the court of appeals.

Photo Credit: NARA Poster, circa 1942-43

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I have been a bankruptcy attorney since 1989. Our firm represents consumers filing bankruptcy almost exclusively, although I have represented bankruptcy trustees as well as creditors. For 2017-2019 I served on the American Bankruptcy Institute's Commission on Consumer Bankruptcy. Our Report recommended numerous changes to improve bankruptcy law to make it serve everyone in the process more effectively. If you live in Eastern Missouri, visit our website, send an e-mail or give us a call (314) 781-3400. Our website:
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