Backstage to Chief Bankruptcy Judge, Cecelia Morris has seen it all

(Reuters) – For the chief justice of one of the country’s busiest bankruptcy courts, it is essential for many reasons to uphold those in debt who appear before her. But the one she tries to keep in mind is that these people often can’t afford to appeal a decision they feel is wrong.

This approach has served as a guiding principle for Chief Justice Cecelia Morris of the US Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York throughout her judicial career, which has largely focused on consumer matters rather than business. Twenty-one years after joining the bench, she has retained her passion for working with people seeking help through bankruptcy.

“Most of the people who come before us who are consumer filers don’t have the resources to appeal,” Morris said in a recent interview with Reuters. “So one of the things that you want to do as much as possible – and I think that’s true for all judges, but I really feel very committed to a consumer case – you want to do it right.”

Watching an attorney who doesn’t litigate the best for a bankrupt client can be heartbreaking for her – even though she says most of the attorneys she sees are knowledgeable and caring. On the other hand, if the debtor presents their own case, sometimes she can help guide that person, she said.

With the exception of an occasional large-scale business bankruptcy, such as that of luxury department store Barneys New York Inc in 2019, Morris primarily oversees consumer bankruptcies in Poughkeepsie, New York. Focusing on consumer cases was a decision she made when she first joined the bench in 2000, knowing she would feel “very comfortable” taking them on. His appointment to the bench came after 12 years as a court clerk, a role that involved enforcing court policies and budgeting.

ACCELERATE TO THE PLATE

Morris’s shift from running the Southern District of New York bankruptcy court backstage to being a judge is, as she describes it, “relatively rare.” While many judges spend years practicing law before moving to the bench, their experience with bankruptcy was built within the court itself.

Growing up in Chillicothe, Texas, a city of less than 1,000, Morris received his undergraduate degree from West Texas State University in 1968 and his law degree from John Marshall Law School in 1977. Morris, now 75, spent the start of her career in private practice in Georgia and as a Deputy District Attorney and Child Support Recovery Unit Administrator for the County District Attorney of Spalding.

None of these experiences involved bankruptcy. But when the post of clerk – an administrative role – opened up in the Middle District of Georgia bankruptcy court, she showed interest. She spent three years in this position before moving to the same position for the Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York.

In New York City, Morris was involved in everything that involved running a courthouse, including many interactions with the Chief Justice – the role she would eventually take on herself.

But the prospect of applying for a judge’s post had not crossed his mind until, at a swearing-in ceremony for a judge, one of the most famous and respected lawyers in Bankruptcy law, the late Harvey Miller of Weil, Gotshal & Manges, falls into walking with her as they leave the event.

“He said to me, ‘When are you going to start applying for these positions?’ She said. “And honestly, it hadn’t really been on my radar.”

After researching what it would take to qualify for the job, she applied and was selected by the 2nd U.S. Court of Appeals for the job. She received advice from other judges on the bench, including recently retired Stuart Bernstein, whom she described as a constant source of encouragement.

From the late Judge Burton Lifland, who presided over the Bernard Madoff bankruptcy cases, she learned to run a case. From the late judge Tina Brozman, she learned how to change a decision. After Brozman died of ovarian cancer in 2007, Morris was part of the team that helped Brozman’s husband start the Tina’s Wish charity, which raises funds for prevention and detection. early ovarian cancer.

IN THE EYE OF THE STORM

In the courtroom, Morris has been embroiled in some of the hottest political and economic issues facing the country in the past two decades. Along with U.S. bankruptcy judge Martin Glenn, she helped set up a mortgage loss mitigation program in the district following the January 2009 financial crisis.

More recently, the court set up a mediation program for student loans. In early 2020, she made headlines for paying off $ 220,000 in student debt owed by a law school graduate. Morris said at the time that she would not accept the “myth” that it is indeed impossible to eliminate student loan debt through bankruptcy.

The decision that marked her over the years, however, came before the United States Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, when it was difficult for same-sex couples to file for bankruptcy together. The law will eventually change, but before that Morris ruled in favor of a same-sex couple who sought bankruptcy protection.

The couple had married in Vermont, but the union was not recognized at the time in New York. Yet Morris felt that because the couple had joint ownership of their assets and acted together, they could file for bankruptcy together.

She made her decision on the bench, which meant that once it was over there were more cases to deal with that day. But she took a minute to herself before returning to the courtroom to hear her other business.

“I had to take a break on the bench because I was very aware of what I had been doing,” she said. “That it was an important decision, especially for those marginalized in the courts. “

BEAT THE PANELS

When not juggling her heavy workload, Morris enjoys spending time with her family, which includes two grown daughters and two grandchildren. Before the pandemic, she enjoyed cooking and hosting dinners. She is passionate about podcasts, especially Australian ones. She receives book recommendations from her colleague, US Bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain, and loves the 2010 version of the movie “True Grit”.

“Almost anything with Jeff Bridges, or the Coen brothers movies, I’ll watch,” she said.

But like many judges, his free time is limited and could become even more so soon. The expected onslaught of further bankruptcies in the wake of the pandemic may be underway, and Morris says the Southern District of New York bankruptcy team is ready for when it fully materializes.

“We remain prepared,” she said.

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