HARRISBURG, Pa. — One chief judge was used to the limelight, the other wasn't. But both bankruptcy jurists found themselves in the spotlight, overseeing high-profile Chapter 9 cases.
Thomas Bennett oversaw the Jefferson County, Ala., bankruptcy in the Northern District of Alabama. JeffCo exited Chapter 9 in December, though 13 litigants have filed three appeals challenging the legality of Bennett's plan of adjustment.
Mary France struck down Harrisburg's Chapter 9 filing in November 2011 in the Middle District of Pennsylvania. Her ruling withstood appeals and the state's capital city recently exited receivership after enacting a recovery plan.
Both discussed their cases Monday at a Widener School of Law symposium on municipal financial distress.
"I probably was not as startled because I had some unusual clients in private practice. I was not immune to publicity," said Bennett. His clients included stripper Blaise Starr, whom he represented in a sale of movie rights, and Don Blankenship, the former chief executive of Massey Coal — now Massey Energy — whom he represented in safety-related lawsuits.
"On any day, half the people don't like you because they lost," said Bennett, a Philadelphia-area native whose private work included 18 years in West Virginia. He joined the Alabama bench in 1995
Social media, he said, lends to instant armchair quarterbacking to courtroom proceedings.
"Lawyers and non-lawyers decide which way you're leaning," he said. "But sometimes I argue a point that I don't necessarily agree with, just to flesh out a position."
France, who joined the Pennsylvania court in 2003, at first didn't believe in October 2011 that Harrisburg's City Council was filing under Chapter 9.
"I got a phone call from my husband and didn't believe him. 'Oh, he's a professor and doesn't know better. Besides, they can't file,'" she said.
But the council did file and France found herself in the news.
"It was different because nobody had expressed interest in me before," she said. "It was very strange to have neighbors tell me that someone was in their neighborhood asking what I was like. Most had the good sense not to tell them how I keep up my yard."
France invalidated the filing on Nov. 23, 2011 — the day before Thanksgiving and on the very afternoon of the hearing. She cited the state ban on a Harrisburg filing at the time and the objections by then-Mayor Linda Thompson. A second courtroom was necessary to accommodate an overflow crowd, which watched the proceeding on television.
"Harrisburg was unique because of the split within the local government," she said. "It's difficult to know what's good for the entity if people are going in different directions."
Both judges stressed the importance of reaching a common ground. "Most outcomes are better through mediation rather than someone feeling that they're the winner or the loser," said France.
Bennett said he orders mediation if both sides favor it.
"I especially liked hearing Judge Bennett and Judge France talk about settlement conferences and other options," said William Lynch, the retired Air Force general who closed the Harrisburg Strong recovery plan before his tenure as the city's state-appointed receiver expired March 1.
Lynch said the tone set by his receivership's lead attorney, Mark Kaufman of McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP of Atlanta, helped Harrisburg finalize the recovery plan. "To Mark's credit, his position was that you don't have to be right all the time."