Central Va. Community College v. Katz

Decision Date23 January 2006
Docket NumberNo. 04-885.,04-885.
Citation163 L. Ed. 2d 945,546 U.S. 356,126 S. Ct. 990
PartiesCENTRAL VIRGINIA COMMUNITY COLLEGE ET AL. <I>v.</I> KATZ, LIQUIDATING SUPERVISOR FOR WALLACE'S BOOKSTORES, INC.
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

The Bankruptcy Clause, Art. I, § 8, cl. 4, empowers Congress to establish "uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States." In Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation v. Hood, 541 U.S. 440, this Court, without reaching the question whether the Clause gives Congress the authority to abrogate States' immunity from private suits, see id., at 443, upheld the application of the Bankruptcy Code, 11 U.S.C. § 101 et seq., to proceedings initiated by a debtor against a state agency to determine the dischargeability of a student loan debt, see 541 U.S., at 451. In this case, a proceeding commenced by respondent Bankruptcy Trustee under §§ 547(b) and 550(a) to avoid and recover alleged preferential transfers by the debtor to petitioner state agencies, the agencies claim that the proceeding is barred by sovereign immunity. The Bankruptcy Court denied petitioners' motions to dismiss on that ground, and the District Court and the Sixth Circuit affirmed based on the Circuit's prior determination that Congress has abrogated the States' sovereign immunity in bankruptcy proceedings.

Held: A bankruptcy trustee's proceeding to set aside the debtor's preferential transfers to state agencies is not barred by sovereign immunity. Pp. 361-379.

(a) The Bankruptcy Clause's history, the reasons it was adopted, and the legislation proposed and enacted under it immediately following ratification demonstrate that it was intended not just as a grant of legislative authority to Congress, but also to authorize limited subordination of state sovereign immunity in the bankruptcy arena. Although statements in Seminole Tribe of Fla. v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44, reflect an assumption that that case's holding would apply to the Clause, careful study and reflection convince this Court that that assumption was erroneous. The Court is not bound to follow its dicta in a prior case in which the point at issue was not fully debated. Cohens v. Virginia, 6 Wheat. 264, 399-400. Pp. 362-363.

(b) States, whether or not they choose to participate, are bound by a bankruptcy court's order discharging the debtor no less than are other creditors. Hood, 541 U.S., at 448. Petitioners here, like the state agency parties in Hood, have conceded as much. See id., at 449. The history of discharges in bankruptcy proceedings demonstrates that these concessions, and Hood's holding, are correct. The Framers' primary goal in adopting the Clause was to prevent competing sovereigns' interference with discharge: The patchwork of wildly divergent and uncoordinated insolvency and bankruptcy laws that existed in the American Colonies resulted in one jurisdiction's imprisoning debtors discharged (from prison and of their debts) in and by another jurisdiction. The absence of extensive debate at the Convention over the Clause's text or its insertion into the Constitution indicates that there was general agreement on the importance of authorizing a uniform federal response to the problems and injustice that system created. Pp. 363-369.

(c) Bankruptcy jurisdiction, as understood today and at the framing, is principally in rem. See, e. g., Hood, 541 U.S., at 447. It thus does not implicate States' sovereignty to nearly the same degree as other kinds of jurisdiction. See id., at 450-451. The Framers would have understood the Bankruptcy Clause's grant of power to enact laws on the entire "subject of Bankruptcies" to include laws providing, in certain limited respects, for more than simple adjudications of rights in the res. Courts adjudicating disputes concerning bankrupts' estates historically have had the power to issue ancillary orders enforcing their in rem adjudications. See, e. g., id., at 455-456. The interplay between in rem adjudications and orders ancillary thereto is also evident in this case. Whether or not actions such as this are properly characterized as in rem, those who crafted the Bankruptcy Clause would have understood it to give Congress the power to authorize courts to avoid preferential transfers and to recover the transferred property. Pp. 369-373.

(d) Insofar as orders ancillary to the bankruptcy courts' in rem jurisdiction, like orders directing turnover of preferential transfers, implicate States' sovereign immunity from suit, the States agreed in the plan of the Constitutional Convention not to assert that immunity. That is evidenced not only by the Bankruptcy Clause's history, but also by legislation considered and enacted in the immediate wake of the Constitution's ratification. For example, the Bankruptcy Act of 1800 specifically granted federal courts habeas authority to release debtors from state prisons at a time when state sovereign immunity was preeminent among the Nation's concerns, yet there appears to be no record of any objection to that grant based on an infringement of sovereign immunity. This history demonstrates that the power to enact bankruptcy legislation was understood to carry with it the power to subordinate state sovereignty, albeit within a limited sphere. Pp. 373-378.

(e) The Court need not consider the question Hood left open: whether Congress' attempt to "abrogat[e]" state sovereign immunity in 11 U.S.C. § 106(a) is valid. The relevant question is not abrogation, but whether Congress' determination that States should be amenable to preferential transfer proceedings is within the scope of its power to enact "Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies." Beyond peradventure, it is. Congress' power, at its option, either to treat States in the same way as other creditors or exempt them from the operation of bankruptcy laws arises from the Clause itself; the relevant "abrogation" is the one effected in the plan of the Convention, not by statute. Pp. 378-379.

106 Fed. Appx. 341, affirmed.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which O'CONNOR, SOUTER, GINSBURG, and BREYER, JJ., joined. THOMAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and SCALIA and KENNEDY, JJ., joined, post, p. 379.

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SIXTH CIRCUIT

William E. Thro, State Solicitor General of Virginia, argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs were Judith Williams Jagdmann, Attorney General, Bernard L. McNamee II, Chief Deputy Attorney General, Maureen Riley Matsen, Deputy Attorney General, Brian J. Goodman and Cynthia H. Norwood, Assistant Attorneys General, and Matthew M. Cobb, Carla R. Collins, Eric A. Gregory, Joel C. Hoppe, Courtney M. Malveaux, Valerie L. Myers, A. Cameron O'Brion, Ronald N. Regnery, D. Mathias Roussy, Jr., and William R. Sievers, Associate State Solicitors General.

Kim Martin Lewis argued the cause for respondent. With her on the brief were Jon L. Fleischaker, Mark A. Vander Laan, Jeremy S. Rogers, and G. Eric Brunstad, Jr.* JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

Article I, § 8, cl. 4, of the Constitution provides that Congress shall have the power to establish "uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States." In Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation v. Hood, 541 U.S. 440 (2004), we granted certiorari to determine whether this Clause gives Congress the authority to abrogate States' immunity from private suits. See id., at 443. Without reaching that question, we upheld the application of the Bankruptcy Code to proceedings initiated by a debtor against a state agency to determine the dischargeability of a student loan debt. See id., at 451. In this case we consider whether a proceeding initiated by a bankruptcy trustee to set aside preferential transfers by the debtor to state agencies is barred by sovereign immunity. Relying in part on our reasoning in Hood, we reject the sovereign immunity defense advanced by the state agencies.

I

Petitioners are Virginia institutions of higher education that are considered "arm[s] of the State" entitled to sovereign immunity. See, e. g., Alden v. Maine, 527 U.S. 706, 756 (1999) (observing that only arms of the State can assert the State's immunity). Wallace's Bookstores, Inc., did business with petitioners before it filed a petition for relief under chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code, 11 U.S.C. § 101 et seq. (2000 ed. and Supp. III), in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky. Respondent, Bernard Katz, is the court-appointed liquidating supervisor of the bankrupt estate. He has commenced proceedings in the Bankruptcy Court pursuant to §§ 547(b) and 550(a) to avoid and recover alleged preferential transfers to each of the petitioners made by the debtor when it was insolvent.1 Petitioners' motions to dismiss those proceedings on the basis of sovereign immunity were denied by the Bankruptcy Court.

The denial was affirmed by the District Court and the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, judgt. order reported at 106 Fed. Appx. 341 (2004), on the authority of the Sixth Circuit's prior determination that Congress has abrogated the States' sovereign immunity in bankruptcy proceedings. See Hood v. Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation, 319 F.3d 755 (2003). We granted certiorari, 544 U.S. 960 (2005), to consider the question left open by our opinion in Hood: whether Congress' attempt to abrogate state sovereign immunity in 11 U.S.C. § 106(a)2 is valid. As we shall explain, however, we are persuaded that the enactment of that provision was not necessary to authorize the Bankruptcy Court's jurisdiction over these preference avoidance proceedings.

Bankruptcy jurisdiction, at its core, is in rem. See Gardner v. New Jersey, 329 U.S. 565, 574 (1947) ("The whole process of proof, allowance, and distribution is, shortly speaking, an adjudication of interests claimed in a res"). As we noted in Hood...

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