Against Bankruptcy Exceptionalism
Bankruptcy courts conceive of their mission differently than other courts do. For the Supreme Court, bankruptcy cases are ordinary statutory cases to be resolved “clearly and predictably using well established principles of statutory interpretation.” Many bankruptcy judges, though, believe that bankruptcy courts serve a distinctive mission for which ordinary adjudicative methods do not suffice. Often, that mission is characterized using the language of equity. Judges and commentators alike have observed that among the most spoken words in the bankruptcy courts are: “the bankruptcy court is a court of equity.” Others have contended that bankruptcy necessitates “creativity and flexibility,” pursuant to which bankruptcy courts have broad authority to formulate orders that promote the ends of bankruptcy. Within the world of bankruptcy, in other words, it is commonly understood that bankruptcy is a special field that requires an exceptional approach—one rooted in the norms, commitments, and assumptions that underlie the values of the bankruptcy community.
I examine this disjunction and consider whether there is any principled justification for bankruptcy exceptionalism. I explain the sources of the disjunction and show how the bankruptcy courts’ exceptional approach has driven outcomes in the ongoing Purdue Pharma opioid crisis bankruptcy saga and other hotly contested and socially consequential cases. I conclude that there are many singular aspects of bankruptcy but none that justify treating it specially. Bankruptcy is distinctive, but it is not exceptional.