Congressional showdowns over the debt limit are nothing new, but this time around there’s a unique wrinkle. The House approved a bill on Tuesday night with what was essentially a party-line vote that paves the way for Congress to avoid a possible default on the national debt in the coming weeks. Here’s the tricky part: “The measure would create a special pathway—to be used only once, before mid-January—for the Senate to raise the debt limit by a specific amount with a simple majority vote, allowing Democrats to steer clear of a filibuster or other procedural hurdles so that Republicans would have no means to block it,” The New York Times reports.
The upshot, assuming this deal holds up long enough to avert the December 15 deadline for raising the debt limit, is that there won’t be another showdown like this before the midterm elections next November.
The invocation of ultra vires to escape bond obligations is nothing new, though. In the second half of the nineteenth century, municipal debtors frequently welched on their debts. In the 1850s and 1860s, cities, towns, and counties across the Midwest and West issued bonds to finance the construction of railroads and other infrastructure. Many ultimately defaulted. Rather than simply announce that they couldn’t or wouldn’t pay, however, they often contended that they needn’t pay: for one or another reason, the relevant bonds had been issued ultra vires and so were no obligation of the municipality at all. Litigation in the federal courts was common. Several hundred repudiation disputes made their way to the Supreme Court in the forty years starting 1859.
With an eye to the modern cases, we set out to understand how the Court reckoned with repudiation. We read every one of the 196 cases in which the Justices opined on bond validity (i.e. the enforceability of a bond in the hands of innocent purchasers). In a recently published article, we correct received wisdom about the cases and remark on the logical structure of the Court’s reasoning.
To the extent the municipal bond cases are remembered, modern scholars usually think of them as exemplary instances of a political model of judging. The caricature has the Court siding with bondholders even when the law called on them to rule for the repudiating municipalities. The Justices—or a majority of them—are imagined as staunch political allies of the capitalist class, set against the institutions of state government and their regard for agricultural interests. We find that this picture is inconsistent with reality. In fact, the Court ruled for the repudiating municipality in a third of all the validity cases. As importantly, the Court’s decisions reflected a readily articulable formal logic, a logic the Justices seem, to our eyes, to have applied soundly.
Citation: Buccola, Allison and Buccola, Vincent S.J., The Municipal Bond Cases Revisited (September 25, 2020). 94 American Bankruptcy Law Journal 591 (2020), Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3699633
Recent high-profile attempts to repudiate municipal bonds break from what had become a stable American norm of honoring public debt. In the nineteenth century, though, hundreds of cities, towns, and counties walked away from their bonds. The Supreme Court’s handling of repudiation in the so-called municipal bond cases conjured intense animus at the time. But the years as well as the archaic prose and sheer volume of the opinions have obscured the cases’ significance.
This article reconstructs the bond cases with an eye to modern disputes. It reports the results of our reading all 203 cases, decided 1859–1899, in which the Justices opined on bond validity. At a high level, our findings correct a stock narrative in the literature. The standard account paints the Court as a reliable champion of northeastern capitalists in what resembled regional or class politics more than law. That story does not withstand scrutiny, however. We find, for example, that the Court ruled for the repudiating municipality about a third of the time. Moreover, the decisions had a readily articulable logic at the heart of which lay a familiar law/fact distinction. Estoppel barred issuers in most instances from denying factual predicates of bond validity, but it did not prevent scrutiny of legal predicates. The Justices were willing to hold bonds void on even highly technical legal grounds.
Author(s): Allison Buccola (Independent) and Vince Buccola (Assistant Professor, The Wharton School)
Publication Date: 1 June 2021
Publication Site: Harvard Law School, Bankruptcy Roundtable