Congress sent a bill to the White House on Thursday that would extend 30 temporary federal bankruptcy judgeships for another five years, but Democrats fear an amendment attached to it could make it tougher to extend them again.
The bill, passed unanimously on Thursday, reauthorizes bankruptcy judgeships in 14 states and Puerto Rico that had already expired. Without the legislation, those districts would have lost a judgeship anytime a judge retired or left the bench for any reason, something that had already happened in two districts, including the spot for now-retired Judge Arthur Gonzalez in the U.S. District for the Southern District of New York.
“This legislation should help avoid that and provide some small degree of relief to overburdened bankruptcy courts around the country,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said. “Quite frankly, I think we should be doing more and hope we will continue to make sure the Federal Judiciary has the resources it needs to serve all Americans.”
In order to secure passage, however, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) required an amendment that says the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts would have to issue a report on the need for bankruptcy judges before the judgeships could be extended again, Leahy said.
Leahy said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), the bill’s main proponent, worked with the AO and bankruptcy judges in a variety of districts to determine where need was greatest. “To codify an unenforceable mandate nominally imposed on future Congresses is unnecessary and unwise,” Leahy said on the Senate floor.
The Senate first passed the bill in April, but there was a technical error and it had to be corrected and passed again Thursday.
Coons said this would “prevent a genuine crisis in America’s bankruptcy court system.” But judges cost money, and the $16 million price tag had been the main obstacle for the Senate amid overall efforts to reel in the national debt.
To get unanimous support, the Senate passed a version of a House bill that would extend the 29 temporary judgeships for another five years but first tacked $167 onto the current $1,000 bankruptcy filing fees.
In 2005, Congress added 28 temporary bankruptcy judgeships at the same time it made sweeping changes with the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act, which also calls on those judges to do more to prevent bankruptcy fraud. As of Oct. 31 of last year, there were 338 bankruptcy judges on the bench nationwide in 90 geographic districts to handle six types of bankruptcy filings, including consumer and business filings under Chapter 7, reorganization filings under Chapter 11 and debt repayment under Chapter 13.