by Dee Wallander, a 2014 Judge K.K. Legett Fellow at the Washington Legal Foundation and a student at Texas Tech University School of Law.
In an overlooked but practically significant decision from its October 2013 term, Executive Benefits Insurance Agency v. Arkison, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified the procedural impact of its 2011 bankruptcy decision, Stern v. Marshall. In Stern (a case that received more fanfare for its underlying facts—which featured the late model Anna Nicole Smith—than for its legal issues), the Court narrowly held that a bankruptcy court can preside over actions arising from bankruptcy, but cannot hear state-law claims independent of the bankruptcy action. More specifically, Stern held that Article III of the U.S. Constitution bars bankruptcy courts from adjudicating counterclaims to proofs of claims, even though such actions are permissible under 28 U.S.C. § 157 as “core” traditional bankruptcy claims. Despite the Court’s attempt to rule narrowly in Stern, lower courts’ varying interpretations of the decision have created confusion in the bankruptcy system.
Justice Thomas, who wrote the unanimous Executive Benefits opinion, carefully avoided a detailed analysis of Stern by discussing only the narrow statutory question of how federal district and bankruptcy courts should procedurally handle so-called Stern claims. Continue reading