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ASHTON ET AL. v. CAMERON COUNTY WATER IMPROVEMENT DISTRICT NO. ONE

decided: May 25, 1936.

ASHTON ET AL
v.
CAMERON COUNTY WATER IMPROVEMENT DISTRICT NO. ONE



CERTIORARI TO THE CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT.

Hughes, Van Devanter, McReynolds, Brandeis, Sutherland, Butler, Stone, Roberts, Cardozo

Author: Mcreynolds

[ 298 U.S. Page 523]

 MR. JUSTICE McREYNOLDS delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondent, a water improvement district embracing 43,000 acres in Cameron County, Texas, was organized in 1914 under the laws of that State. Claiming to be insolvent and unable to meet its debts as they matured, it presented to the United States District Court, December 5, 1934, an Amended Petition with plan for adjusting its obligations -- $800,000 six percent bonds. This proposed final settlement of these obligations through payment of 49.8 cents on the dollar out of funds to be borrowed from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation at four percent.

The petition follows and seeks relief under the Act of Congress approved May 24, 1934, c. 345, §§ 78, 79 and 80, 48 Stat. 798; Title 11 U. S. C., §§ 301, 302 and 303.*fn** It alleges that more than thirty percent of the bondholders had accepted the plan and ultimately more than two-thirds would do so. The prayer asks confirmation of the proposal and that non-assenting bondholders be required to accept it.

Owners of more than five percent of outstanding bonds appeared, said there was no jurisdiction, denied the existence

[ 298 U.S. Page 524]

     of insolvency, and asked that the petition be held insufficient.

The trial court dismissed the petition for lack of jurisdiction. It held --

The petitioner is a mere agency or instrumentality of the State, created for local exercise of her sovereign power -- reclamation of arid land through irrigation. It owns no private property and carries on public business only. The bonds are contracts of the State, executed through this agency, and secured by taxes levied upon local property. Congress lacks power to authorize a federal court to readjust obligations, as provided by the Act. Also, the allegations of fact are insufficient.

The Circuit Court of Appeals took the cause, considered the points presented, and held that the allegations were adequate to show jurisdiction and to warrant introduction of evidence. Also that Congress had exercised the power "To establish . . . uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies," granted by § 8, cl. 4, Art. 1 of the Constitution. Accordingly, it reversed the trial court and remanded the cause.

The Act of May 24, 1934 amended the Bankruptcy Act of July 1, 1898, c. 541, 30 Stat. 544, by adding Chapter IX (three sections, 78, 79, 80), captioned "Provisions for the Emergency Temporary Aid of Insolvent Public Debtors and to Preserve the Assets thereof and for other Related Purposes."

Section 78 asserts an emergency rendering imperative further exercise of the bankruptcy powers. Section 79 directs that "in addition to the jurisdiction exercised in voluntary and involuntary proceedings to adjudge persons bankrupt, courts of bankruptcy shall exercise original jurisdiction in proceedings for the relief of debtors, as provided in this chapter."

Section 80 -- long and not free from ambiguities -- in twelve paragraphs (a to 1) prescribes the mode and conditions

[ 298 U.S. Page 525]

     under which, when unable to pay its debts as they mature, "any municipality or other political subdivision of any State, including . . . any county, city, borough, village, parish, town, or township, unincorporated tax or special assessment district, and any school, drainage, irrigation, reclamation, levee, sewer, or paving, sanitary, port, improvement or other districts" may effect a readjustment. A brief outline of the salient provisions, with some quotations, will suffice for present purposes.

The petition for relief must be filed in the District Court and submit plan for readjustment approved by creditors holding thirty percent of the obligations to be affected; also complete list of creditors. If satisfied that the petition is in good faith and follows the statute, the judge shall enter an approving order; otherwise, it must be dismissed. Creditors holding five percent of the indebtedness may appear in opposition.

"A plan of readjustment within the meaning of this chapter (1) shall include provisions modifying or altering the rights of creditors generally, or of any class of them, secured or unsecured, either through the issuance of new securities of any character or otherwise; and (2) may contain such other provisions and agreements, not inconsistent with this chapter, as the parties may desire."

Upon approval of the petition, creditors must be notified; if the plan is not seasonably accepted, extension may be granted, etc.

Hearings must be accorded. The judge, with its approval, "may direct the rejection of contracts of the taxing district executory in whole or in part." He may require the district to open its books; allow reasonable compensation; stay suits; enter an interlocutory decree declaring the plan temporarily operative, etc. "But [he] shall not, by any order or decree, in the proceeding or otherwise, interfere with any of the political or governmental

[ 298 U.S. Page 526]

     powers of the taxing district, or any of the property or revenues of the taxing district necessary in the opinion of the judge for essential governmental purposes, or any income-producing property, unless the plan of readjustment so provides."

After hearing, the judge shall confirm the plan, if satisfied that it is fair, equitable, for the best interests of the creditors, does not unduly discriminate, complies with the statute, and has been accepted by those holding two-thirds of the indebtedness. Also, that expenses incident to the readjustment have been provided for, that both plan and acceptance are in good faith and the district is authorized by law to take all necessary action.

The provisions of the plan, after order of confirmation, shall be binding upon the district and all creditors, secured or unsecured. Final decree shall discharge the district from all debts and liabilities dealt with by the plan, except as otherwise provided.

"(k) Nothing contained in this chapter shall be construed to limit or impair the power of any State to control, by legislation or otherwise, any political subdivision thereof in the exercise of its political or governmental powers, including expenditures therefor, and including the power to require the approval by any governmental agency of the State of the filing of any petition hereunder and of any plan of readjustment, and whenever there shall exist or shall hereafter be created under the law of any State any agency of such State authorized to exercise supervision or control over the fiscal affairs of all or any political subdivisions thereof, and whenever such agency has assumed such supervision or control over any political subdivision, then no petition of such political subdivision may be received hereunder unless accompanied by the written approval of such agency, and no plan of readjustment shall be put into temporary effect or finally confirmed without the written approval of such agency of such plans."

[ 298 U.S. Page 527]

     We need not consider this Act in detail or undertake definitely to classify it. The evident intent was to authorize a federal court to require objecting creditors to accept an offer by a public corporation to compromise, scale down, or repudiate its indebtedness without the surrender of any property whatsoever. The Act has been assailed upon the ground that it is not in any proper sense a law on the subject of bankruptcies and therefore is beyond the power of Congress; also because it conflicts with the Fifth Amendment. Passing these, and other objections, we assume for this discussion that the enactment is adequately related to the general "subject of bankruptcies." See Hanover National Bank v. Moyses, 186 U.S. 181; Continental Illinois N. B. & T. Co. v. C., R. I. & P. Ry. Co., 294 U.S. 648; Louisville Joint Stock Land Bank v. Radford, 295 U.S. 555.

The respondent was organized in 1914 as Cameron County Irrigation District No. One, to furnish water for irrigation and domestic uses; in 1919, it became the Cameron County Water Improvement District No. One, all as authorized by statutes passed under § 52, Art. 3, Constitution of Texas, which permits creation of political divisions of the State, with power to sue and be sued, issue bonds, levy and collect taxes. An amendment to the Constitution -- § 59a, Art. 16 -- (October 2, 1917) declares the conservation and development of all the natural resources of the State, including reclamation of lands and their preservation, are "public rights and duties." Most of the bonds now in question were issued during 1914; the remainder in 1919.

By Act approved April 27, 1935, the Texas Legislature declared that municipalities, political subdivisions, taxing districts, &c., might proceed under ...


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