A Practical Star for Oregon and the Country: U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Elizabeth Perris

Bankruptcy Judgeship

In her early years on the bench, Judge Perris spent most of her time dealing with Chapter 11 commercial cases. In 1986, she estimates that the district had 200 Chapter 11 cases. She took an active management role in her cases, believing that creditors needed to either get paid reasonably fast, or be told promptly there would not be any money in the case. “Filing a chapter 11 or any sort of bankruptcy was a lot like hiring a taxi. You could pay it to wait, or you could pay it to drive. So, you may as well pay it to drive because at least you’d get somewhere.”

During her years as a bankruptcy judge, Judge Perris presided over several high-profile cases. Here a sampling of her most memorable cases: in 1986, an involuntary case against one of the Rajneesh corporations during the time when the followers of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh were leaving Rajneeshpuraman (an intentional religious community in Wasco County, Oregon) and fleeing the country;  Melridge, Inc., a flower bulb farm; Hoyt & Sons Ranches, which involved an investment scam and tax fraud based on traveling cattle; the Portland Archdiocese, the first archdiocese bankruptcy in the nation, which resulted from clergy sexual abuse claims; and the Oregon Arena Corp., commonly known as the Rose Garden (and now known as the Moda Center). The Portland Archdiocese case was perhaps the most challenging. It was the first case of its kind and was highly contentious. She had to rule on many novel issues, including ownership of church properties.

Judge Perris served two non-consecutive terms on the Bankruptcy Appellate Panel, a panel of bankruptcy judges who are appointed as volunteers to hear appeals from bankruptcy cases around the Ninth Circuit.  The job required traveling around the circuit and sitting on a 3-judge panel once or twice a month.  The work was intense; it added about 30 to 40 percent to the judge’s existing trial court workload.  Perris served as Chief Judge of the BAP for two years.

U.S. Bankruptcy Court: District of Oregon, 1996. Left to right: (seated), Folger Johnson, C.E. “Ed”
Luckey, Henry Hess; (standing) Albert Radcliffe, Polly Higdon, Donal D. Sullivan, Elizabeth
Perris, and Frank Alley

Toward the end of her tenure as a bankruptcy judge, the type of cases she handled changed. Her caseload, which had started as primarily business-related bankruptcy cases, veered towards smaller consumer cases. Just as her young judicial career started with a major change in the bankruptcy system, her mature career was marked by the passing of the Bankruptcy Abuse and Consumer Protection Act in October 2005, commonly referred to as BAPCPA. This created a sudden spike in consumer cases in 2005, and a dearth of cases in 2006 and 2007. As the economy crumbled in late 2007, the case load picked up again.

Judge Perris feels fortunate that her career spanned the time between the Marathon Oil case and the 2011 Supreme Court case of Stern v. Marshall, which limited the bankruptcy court’s authority to enter final judgments in certain cases. In her oral history, Judge Perris commented: “But it really did feel like bookmarks to my career. Marathon Oil at the beginning, and Stern v. Marshall at the end, because basically Marathon put the bankruptcy court back in business and Stern potentially undermined what business the bankruptcy court could do. I felt like I was there in the best of years, in-between those two.”

Judge Perris noted in her oral history that her mother always told her “you just have to try. You don’t have to be successful, but you have to try.” By that definition, Judge Perris says she feels she was very successful.  However, she expresses disappointment that the bankruptcy system has provided less and less relief to debtors through the years, saying: “the current system is not beneficial to where we are. I just hope that it’s swung a little too far and it’s going to swing back.”