Usually you have little or no interaction with the bankruptcy clerk or the bankruptcy judge, but they are both important in your case.
Last week we told you about the debtor and different kinds of creditors in bankruptcy. Today we get into the bankruptcy court and bankruptcy judge. Again, it’s much easier to be comfortable with the process if you know who the main players are and what each one does.
The clerk is the person who, together with his or her staff, handles the clerical tasks of the bankruptcy court. Some of these tasks are quite important, affecting your interests and that of your creditors. It may seem to be “just paperwork,” but is still crucial for the smooth running of your case.
- processes the paperwork that your lawyer files electronically at the start of your case and thereafter
- maintains your bankruptcy file at court securely
- mails out the official notices providing deadlines and certain hearings for you, creditors, the bankruptcy trustee
- follows the many bankruptcy laws and official procedures in the processing of your case
Your bankruptcy lawyer interacts with the clerk and his or her staff to make sure that everything proceeds as it should. In most cases you will not have anything directly to do with them.
The bankruptcy judge is the person who ultimately has authority over your case. Every case is assigned to one judge.
You are not likely to meet your judge in any straightforward Chapter 7 or 13 case. If you do it would usually be for a very specific purpose. For example, in a Chapter 7 case you might need to attend a short “reaffirmation” hearing. In a Chapter 13 case you might need to attend a payment plan “confirmation” hearing. But again, in most cases you’ll never see your judge. The most you usually see of him or her is a signature on official documents.
These judges are officers of the federal court system, but they are not full federal judges. Technically they are “judicial officers of the United States district court.” There are between 1 and 4 federal “districts” in each state, to which bankruptcy judges are assigned. Most federal districts have multiple bankruptcy judges, although some with smaller populations have only 1. Unlike regular federal judges who are appointed for life, bankruptcy judges are appointed to terms of 14 years. See 28 U.S. Code Section 152.
If there is any dispute in your case, the judge resolves such disputes. In Chapter 7 cases he or she decides whether a debt should be discharged (legally written off) or not if that is in dispute. In Chapter 13 cases the judge decides on the terms of your Chapter 13 plan, if you and the Chapter 13 trustee or a creditor disagree.
The decision of the bankruptcy judge can be appealed, either to a local federal district judge or sometimes to a regional 3-judge Bankruptcy Appellate Panel. That very seldom happens because of the time and expense involved.