By Laura Coordes (Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law)
Over the past few years, a growing number of scholars have sought to diagnose what is wrong with the U.S. bankruptcy system. Congress has held hearings in search of an answer. And many answers have emerged, ranging from lack of balance to outright lawlessness. In my article, Bankruptcy Overload, I contend that these problems are part of a larger issue: the bankruptcy system is overloaded. Those who use it, whether debtors or non-debtors, frequently seek to extract more out of a bankruptcy than the process can, practically and legally, provide.
We have always asked the bankruptcy system to do a lot—indeed, the system’s flexibility and adaptability to new challenges and situations are often described as features rather than bugs. As our current system approaches its 45th birthday, however, it has become increasingly clear that users of the bankruptcy system are putting enormous pressure on it to do more, to resolve more issues, and to satisfy the needs and wants of a growing number of players. In the face of this increasing pressure, the system is beginning to buckle—and this buckling results in many of the problems scholars have identified with modern bankruptcy practice.
The goals and boundaries of bankruptcy law have always been subject to debate, making the system particularly susceptible to taking on more than it can bear. Over the years, many have embraced the resulting uncertainty of the limitations of bankruptcy as a necessary byproduct of bankruptcy’s built-in flexibility. However, even a system with significant capacity can be overloaded, and this Article’s core claim is that the bankruptcy system has reached that point.
This Article defines and explains the concept of bankruptcy overload, illustrating that many of the problems currently plaguing the bankruptcy system derive from overloading it. In addition, although overloading the system may create problems in individual cases, this Article shows that bankruptcy overload is systemically harmful, and that failure to recognize and address it will undermine the system’s long-term utility. Those seeking changes to bankruptcy law must be aware of the system’s capacity constraints. In addition to defining bankruptcy overload and identifying its harms, the Article illuminates ways to address many of the issues present in bankruptcy today while being cognizant of the effect of changes to bankruptcy law on the system as a whole.
The full article is available here.