After swearing up and down that I would blog more about Puerto Rico’s 70 billion dollar debt crisis, I of course was remiss and did not. But a new paper by Mitu Gulati and Robert Rasmussen, “Puerto Rico and the Netherworld of Sovereign Debt Restructuring” has provided me the impetus to dive into this topic again.
Recall that unlike U.S. municipalities (such as Detroit), Puerto Rico bodies and utilities aren’t considered debtors for purposes of Chapter 9 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code and therefore don’t have access to the municipal bankruptcy process. See 11 U.S.C. § 101(52). Puerto Rico attempted to address its fiscal woes by enacting the 2014 Puerto Rico Public Corporation Debt Enforcement and Recovery Act, which created a debt restructuring mechanism analogous to Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on June 13, 2016 that the Act was preempted by Section 903(1) of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. Puerto Rico v. Franklin California Tax-Free Trust, 136 S. Ct. 1938 (2016). [Fn. 1]
After the Franklin Trust decision, Congress stepped in and passed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) legislation on June 30, 2016, to allow Puerto Rico to restructure without filing for Chapter 9 bankruptcy. Briefly, PROMESA establishes an independent oversight board, provides for a bankruptcy-like debt restructuring process, and requires submission of a Fiscal Plan by Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico’s required Fiscal Plan was approved by the Oversight Board on March 13, 2017; however, that plan has come under criticism from bondholders.
This all begs the question, however, of what would have happened had Congress NOT passed the PROMESA legislation. Puerto Rico would have been left in a bind in which it had no access to the U.S. municipal bankruptcy process but was preempted from enacting any analogous debt restructuring mechanism by Section 903(1) of that same Bankruptcy Code, per Franklin California Tax-Free Trust. [Fn. 2]
Gulati and Rasmussen’s paper focuses on this question, arguing that, as a constitutional matter, the United States may not prohibit Puerto Rico from enacting its own bankruptcy-like restructuring process while offering no alternative mechanism. This leaves Puerto Rico in an untenable “netherworld,” in which it has the power to issue debt without the mechanisms for dealing with financial distress on the back end.