Bankruptcies cause need for more judges

March 14, 1998|By BRENDAN KIRBY

Bankruptcies cause need for more judges

As far back as 1989, officials at the U.S. Bankruptcy Court's Maryland District concluded they needed another judge.

They eventually got one - four years later.

By then, the explosion of personal bankruptcy filings had overwhelmed the court, said Judge Duncan W. Keir.

"It's clear that we're not able to keep up. We're running deeper and deeper into debt, if you will," he said.

Keir, who has been a vocal critic of Congress for not approving additional judgeships in Maryland, said statistics clearly demonstrate the need.


The court disposed of 21,489 cases in 1996 - 2,741 fewer than were filed that year. That gap jumped to 5,245 in 1997.

The backlog has also forced judges to work much longer, he said.

For the 12-month period ending in January 1997, Keir said the workload translated to 2,216 hours per judge. For the 12-month period ending in June 1997, the figure rose to 2,410 hours per judge.

By September, the statistic was 2,532 hours, Keir said.

The House of Representatives passed legislation last year to increase the number of permanent and temporary bankruptcy judges by 18 across the country.

But similar legislation has been stuck in a Senate subcommittee, said Jesse Jacobs, a spokesman for Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, D-Md.

Sarbanes and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., have sponsored legislation to add two full-time judges to the Maryland Division, Jacobs said.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, who chairs the subcommittee, has not acted on the legislation. Melissa Kearney, a spokeswoman for Grassley, said the senator wants legislation that is national in scope.

Kearney said Grassley is working with the U.S. Judicial Conference to craft a bill. But she said he has cited concerns that some of the backlog has been created by excessive travel among bankruptcy judges.

Sarbanes has sent two letters to Grassley in the last six months asking for action on the legislation. He said the Maryland District is one of the most overworked in the country.

One of the reasons for the increasing backlog is that creditors are challenging more bankruptcy claims, Keir said.

"We are seeing more aggressive attitudes on the part of some lenders in these consumer cases," he said.

That means more credit card companies, for instance, are suing debtors claiming consumer fraud.

Robert B. McKinley, president of the Frederick, Md.-based RAM Research Group, said credit card companies rarely sued debtors for fraud 10 years ago.

But companies have changed tactics because bankruptcies have cut into their profits, McKinley said. He said about 43 percent of the credit card industry's losses are due to bankruptcies.

That amount of money they will have to write off could grow to $12 billion this year, he said.

"Creditors have to wait longer on cases" to get paid, Keir said. "That's a significant amount of money."

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