From backstage to Chief Bankruptcy Judge, Cecelia Morris has seen it all


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(Reuters) – For the chief judge of one of the busiest bankruptcy courts in the country, it is essential to give justice to people in debt who appear before her for many reasons. But the one she tries to keep in mind is that these people often don’t have the means to appeal a decision they think is wrong.

This approach has served as a guiding principle for Chief Judge Cecelia Morris of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York throughout her judicial career, which has largely focused on consumer cases rather than business cases. ‘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 registrants 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 you can – and I think that’s true of all judges, but I really feel very attached to that in a consumer case – you want to do well things.”

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Watching a lawyer who doesn’t present the best case for a bankrupt client can be heartbreaking to her – even though she says most of the lawyers she sees are competent and caring. On the other hand, if the debtor presents her own case, she can sometimes help guide that person, she says.

With the exception of an occasional high-profile commercial 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 joined the bench in 2000, knowing she would feel “very comfortable” taking on them. His appointment to the bench came after 12 years as court clerk, a role that involved enforcing court policies and budgeting.

GO TO PLATE

Morris’ move from running the Southern District of New York bankruptcy court from behind the scenes to serving as a judge is, as she describes it, “relatively rare.” While many judges spend years practicing law before moving on to the bench, his bankruptcy experience was built within the court itself.

After growing up in Chillicothe, Texas, a town of less than 1,000 people, Morris earned 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 her early career in private practice in Georgia and as an assistant district attorney and administrator of the Child Support Collections Unit for the Spalding County District Attorney .

None of these experiences involved bankruptcy. But when the position of court clerk — an administrative role — opened up in Georgia’s Intermediate District Bankruptcy Court, she became interested. She spent three years in that position before taking the same position in the bankruptcy court for the Southern District of New York.

In New York, 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 running for a judgeship hadn’t crossed his mind until, at a judge’s swearing-in ceremony, one of Canada’s most famous and respected lawyers in bankruptcy law, the late Harvey Miller of Weil, Gotshal & Manges, fell in love. walk with her as they left the event.

“He said to me, ‘When are you going to start applying for these positions?’ “, she says. “And honestly, that 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 United States 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 Bernard Madoff’s bankruptcy cases, she learned how to handle 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 money for prevention and early detection. ovarian cancer.

IN THE EYE OF THE STORM

In the courtroom, Morris has been embroiled in some of the most burning political and economic issues facing the country over the past two decades. Along with U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Martin Glenn, she helped establish a district-wide mortgage loss mitigation program following the January 2009 financial crisis.

More recently, the court implemented a student loan mediation program. In early 2020, she made headlines for paying off a law student debt of $220,000. 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 has stuck with him over the years, however, came before the US Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, when it was difficult for same-sex couples to file for bankruptcy together. The law would eventually change, but before that Morris had ruled in favor of a same-sex couple who had filed for bankruptcy protection.

The couple had married in Vermont, but the union was not recognized at the time in New York. Still, Morris argued that because the couple co-owned their assets and acted together, they could file for bankruptcy together.

She handed down her decision from the bench, meaning once it was over, there were more cases to deal with that day. But she took a minute for herself before returning to the courtroom to hear her other cases.

“I had to take a break from the bench because I was very aware of what I had done,” she said. “That it was an important decision, especially for people in the courts who are marginalized.”

CLOSE THE HATCHES

When not juggling her heavy workload, Morris enjoys spending time with her family, which includes two adult daughters and two grandchildren. Before the pandemic, she enjoyed cooking and hosting dinner parties. She is an avid listener of 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 new bankruptcies as a result 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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Terri S. Tomasini