Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare v. Davenport

PETITIONER: Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare
LOCATION: Michigan Chamber of Commerce

DOCKET NO.: 89-156
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1988-1990)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

CITATION: 495 US 552 (1990)
ARGUED: Feb 20, 1990
DECIDED: May 29, 1990

David A. Searles - on behalf of the Respondents
Walter W. Cohen - on behalf of the Petitioners

Facts of the case


Media for Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare v. Davenport

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 20, 1990 in Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare v. Davenport

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument now in No. 89-156, Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare v. Edward J. Davenport.

Mr. Cohen.

Walter W. Cohen:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

The issue before the Court in this case is whether Congress in enacting the Bankruptcy Code of 1978 intended that a criminal convicted of welfare fraud and sentenced to pay restitution as a condition of probation in a state court can walk out of the state courthouse and into the federal courthouse to have the judge's criminal restitution order wiped out in a bankruptcy process.

The facts of the case are not in dispute.

The defendants in September of 1986 entered guilty pleas.

They were sentenced to pay restitution in the amount of $4,145 at the rate of $208 per defendant per month payable to the county probation department.

A period of months passed.

They failed to pay and they then proceeded in a Chapter 13 bankruptcy filing.

The probation department of the county filed a previolation notice and subsequently held a hearing and then the bankruptcy court instituted an adversary proceeding at the instance of the Respondents and an order was entered discharging the state court restitution sentence as a debt.

That decision was reversed by the judge in the Eastern District based upon this Court's reasoning in Kelly v. Robinson.

But the Third Circuit in a two-to-one decision reversed and the order of discharge stood, cert was granted by this Court to address the question of whether a restitution order is a debt that is dischargeable in a Chapter 13 bankruptcy proceeding.

It is Petitioners' position that Congress did not intend to void a lawful state court criminal sentence in any way through the bankruptcy process or in particular here through a Chapter 13 proceeding.

To have done so would have trampled on the principles of federalism in comity that this Court in 1971 in Younger v. Harris discussed so thoroughly where the Court recognized the fundamental policy in our system of government against federal interference with state criminal prosecutions.

Further, the language of the Bankruptcy Code does not clearly spell out that criminal court orders of this nature are to be voided through discharge in a Chapter 13 proceeding.

Additionally, there was a string of pre-Code cases going back as far as the case of In re Moore in Kentucky Bankruptcy Court in 1901 where courts refused to discharge criminal restitution sentences.

That is very important under the test that the Supreme Court set forth in the Midlantic case and the Court said that if Congress intends for legislation to change the interpretation of a judicially-created concept, it makes that intent specific.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Mr. Cohen, were criminal monetary sanctions considered debts in pre-Code Chapter 13-type proceedings?

Walter W. Cohen:

They were not, Justice O'Connor.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Were they dischargeable?

Walter W. Cohen:

The criminal court orders were not... they were dischargeable, but under the definition of debt.

I'm sorry, they were not dischargeable.

But under the definition of debt, which was a much narrower definition at that time, they did not fall under that definition.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Are there cases that you cite holding that criminal monetary sanctions were nondischargeable?

Walter W. Cohen:

Yes, Your Honor, and In re Moore is one of them.

But it's... it's a whole string of cases cited in our brief that stands for that proposition.

In the Ron Pair Enterprises case, this Court also said that we must look very carefully to its clear expression of congressional intent when there is a clear conflict with state and federal laws of great importance.

Here the conflict is between the Bankruptcy Code and the criminal laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

In Kelly v. Robinson, this Court said you must look to... one must look to the whole law.

And if we do that, we find no solid specific evidence of any congressional intent to change that pre-Code law to allow for discharge of criminal sentences.