This is my first column for Above the Law on the Supreme Court. In an effort to help me generate effective linkbait, the Supreme Court issued an opinion yesterday at the intersection of bankruptcy and tax law for farmers — Hall v. United States.
Basically, Hall means that, if you’re a farmer and you declare bankruptcy on your farm under Chapter 12 (“the one just for farmers”), and, while in bankruptcy, you sell your farm, you will still have to pay capital gains tax on the sale of your farm — any liability to the IRS is not dischargeable.
Perhaps the most exciting part of the opinion is that Ninth Circuit was affirmed. Though, in fairness, the Ninth Circuit opinion was written by Judge O’Scannlain, so it’s not as though the Supreme Court affirmed Judge Reinhardt.
Also, farmers who are in bankruptcy and sell their farms now have to pay tax on the profits from those sales. I’m sure much of the Midwest is rioting in response.
For those who practice tax law, bankruptcy, or farming law, you will definitely want to read the opinion and some of the write-ups on it.
But the most exciting part of the morning involved new members of the Supreme Court bar….
It’s bar admission season at the Supreme Court. The arguments are over — the Court sits until the end of June just to issue opinions, certify orders, and admit new members of its bar.
Organizing a Supreme Court admissions event is one of the ways a law school alumni association or bar can add value — they make all the arrangements so that a group of their members are sworn in together to the Supreme Court bar.
Yesterday, 100 lawyers, give or take, sat check to jowl in the Courtroom. It was raining in Washington, and the room smelled like moistened wool. Most of the lawyers were wearing what I imagine are their best suits. Many of the men looked like they just had haircuts. For the most part, the shirts were white, the suits were dark, and the ties were red.
Each lawyer seeking admission is sponsored. The Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court was one of the sponsors yesterday morning for a group of young lawyers from her state. Each sponsor reads the name of each lawyer seeking admission. When the lawyer’s name is read, she stands.
It takes longer than you’d think for 100 lawyers to stand and smile at the Supreme Court.
The Justices do not seem to enjoy these admissions ceremonies.
Aside from a visit to a judicial conference or the odd speech to a bar association, this is probably the Supreme Court tradition that comes closest to a rope line or an interaction with the public. The other branches of our government have to worry about what people think of them — not so for our nine Justices.
As the lawyers stand to be admitted, many of them try to smile at one of the Justices. They do what they probably do with jurors back in Georgia, or Florida, or New Jersey — they try to connect.
The Justices generally do not smile back. They sit blank-faced and slightly slack-jawed. If they appear to be thinking about anything at all, it’s how long it will be until they can leave. It’s not exactly heartwarming.
Sometimes the bar admissions can have lighter moments — last year, the day after Father’s Day, one man moved the admission of his five sons to the Supreme Court’s bar. It was a nice moment.
But the overarching message that the Justices project by their demeanor is that they do not care what we think of them. And why should they? They have life tenure; they breathe rarified air. The Justices do not face many life experiences that instruct them to care what others think of them. Maybe that’s one reason why the Supreme Court’s approval rating is so low.
But this, perhaps, is an argument for cameras at the Supreme Court that is least often articulated — it would make the Justices act like they cared what other people think of them.
Congress is on C-SPAN; the members of Congress have learned how to fake being interested in what’s happening in front of them. Perhaps if the Justices were on TV, and the cameras reflected back to the Justices how uninterested they look at these admissions ceremonies — while the lawyers being admitted look so eager to have some of their attention — we’d see the same faked attention from the Court that we’ve grown to love from members of Congress.
Matt Kaiser is a lawyer at The Kaiser Law Firm PLLC, which handles complex civil litigation, white collar investigations, and federal criminal cases. On his blog, The Federal Criminal Appeals Blog, he writes about published opinions in criminal cases in the federal circuits where the defendant wins. He can be reached at mattkaiser@thekaiserlawfirm.