The following is the first in a new series of profiles of 9th Circuit bankruptcy judges. Judge Neil W. Bason and members of the Insolvency Law Committee met in his chambers and discussed his personal and professional background, transition to the bench and other issues of interest.
Judge Bason was appointed to the bench in the Central District of California, Los Angeles Division, in October 2011. Prior to his appointment, he was special counsel at Duane Morris LLP and at Howard Rice Nemerovski Canady Falk & Rabkin, P.C., and served as law clerk to the Honorable Dennis Montali, United States Bankruptcy Judge in the Northern District of California and Chief Judge of the Bankruptcy Appellate Panel of the Ninth Circuit.
Home, Travels and Influences
Judge Bason grew up in Washington, D.C., and spent a year during college living in London. His chambers reflect his hometown and travels, with pictures and paintings of the Jefferson Memorial, London and a historic mill.
The Jefferson Memorial is one of Judge Bason’s favorite places to visit, and he is still influenced by a childhood visit to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia home. Judge Bason enjoys studying history, and particularly about some of the men and women who had the greatest influences on the development of this nation. Reflecting that Thomas Jefferson designed an innovative clock and George Washington built a circular barn to exercise cows, Judge Bason notes that, “Jefferson and Washington were enlightenment men with character. They were trying to push the envelope, and I admire that.” The Judge is currently reading Abraham Lincoln’s complete works on his Kindle.
Life Before the Bench
Prior to taking the bench, Judge Bason was a dedicated member of the ILC, serving as Co-Vice Chair and, briefly, Co-Chair. His term as ILC Co-Chair was cut short when he was appointed to the bench. One of his favorite activities as a practitioner was brainstorming legal issues with colleagues and interacting with smart and experienced attorneys. In fact, he is an unabashed fan of the ILC and believes that the ILC is a great place for insolvency practitioners to share their ideas, as he found members of the committee to be “collaborative, interactive, and of high character.” He appreciated the energy and enthusiasm exhibited by ILC members.
Judge Bason believes that he was “incredibly lucky” to have a great variety of experiences in private practice. Looking back at his time as a lawyer, he points to a couple of lessons and tips for young and experienced attorneys: (1) the importance of accepting responsibility early in one’s career, learning as much as possible, and taking calculated chances, and ultimately learning from inevitable mistakes; and (2) the importance of having a balanced life, personally and professionally. He did not always follow his own advice – for example, he wishes that he had taken more chances early on – but looking back he believes he learned the most when he made himself do that. Judge Bason is very thankful to Judge Montali, who mentored him and gave him exposure to a wide variety of issues arising in bankruptcy law.
Transition to the Bench
While the transition from Bar to bench is never easy, Judge Bason’s appointment also meant a move from San Francisco to Los Angeles, where his social and professional networks were much more limited. Judge Bason, though, found the Central District bankruptcy judges to be very collegial and welcoming, making the transition easier than he had imagined. Members of the Bar may be surprised to know that bankruptcy judges often get together for activities like architectural walking tours around Downtown, hikes in local hills and mountains, and performances at the Hollywood Bowl.
However, being a judge can also be isolating. Judge Bason noted that, “whereas in private practice after a great argument in court you can take your opposing counsel out to lunch, you cannot do the same as a judge.”
Speaking of not being isolated, Judge Bason recently participated in the traditional CBF “game show” hosted by Chief Judge Sheri Bluebond. This year the program was called “The Bankruptcy Bachelor,” and Judge Bason is very grateful to Judge Bluebond and the other participants for their sense of humor and being exceptionally good sports.
Judge Bason’s interest in technology has clearly influenced how he approaches his role as a judge. While many law firms are slowly transitioning to a paperless office, Judge Bason has already implemented virtually paperless chambers. He logs into the Court’s computer system from home, and has access to the pleadings online. He does not review hard copies unless the pleadings have not yet made it to the docket, such as with somepro separties, or if there are a lot of tabs and exhibits. For pleadings, he makes PDF copies and writes notes electronically in Adobe Acrobat, or types notes in a separate document referring to key parts of the pleadings. In fact, Judge Bason notes that were it not for his law clerks’ preferences, he would have done away with the paper courtesy copy requirement in his courtroom.
The Judge tries to give detailed tentative rulings prior to oral arguments, and expects counsel to address the relevant issues he identified. He does not try to hide the ball on the issues that he wants counsel to address. Although he likes to engage attorneys at oral argument, and does so more than the average Bankruptcy Judge, sometimes he feels compelled to hold back and let the attorneys raise the issues that they believe are important. Despite his active discussion with counsel, he fairly often refrains from raising additional issues that he has discussed with his law clerks because no party has raised them.
As a result of his experience in private practice, the Judge tries to move cases along in a timely manner. He frowns on needless procedural delays and has recently cracked down on some attorneys who consistently file late or frivolous pleadings. If an issue needs time to develop, then he will let that happen, but he makes every effort not to allow a case to linger needlessly. For example, in chapter13 cases he sets confirmation hearings early and in small chapter 11 cases he usually requires the use of forms and sets a combined hearing on final approval of a disclosure statement and confirmation of a plan. He notes, however, that “The Bankruptcy Code gets thicker and thicker and there are now procedural issues such as Stern v. Marshall.” The procedural issues add to the time and money involved in bankruptcy cases, which is especially burdensome for individual parties.
Judge Bason understands life as a practitioner, including the importance of fee applications, and tries to remember that he does not see what transpires outside of the courtroom. He observed that what he sees as a judge may not be the whole picture. “The end result may look simple, but may not be, and I try to be respectful of that.” He comments that “someone can be a complete jerk during discovery and then act differently before the judge.”
He also understands that “reputation is everything.” It is especially critical in a small professional community like the Bankruptcy Bar. As a result, unlike among general litigators, one finds that in the Bankruptcy Bar there is generally more civility and a need to choose your battles. The Judge notes that an attorney who is not honest with the Court or who makes clearly frivolous arguments, risks having his pleadings read with extra scrutiny by judges who no longer trust that attorney’s factual or legal representations. He is quick to clarify, though, that in his experience both on and off the bench judges go out of their way to avoid bias in reviewing pleadings, and if anything bend over backwards to be careful when dealing with an attorney who has lost the Court’s trust and always consider all the arguments presented by all sides to a dispute.
Life in Los Angeles
Judge Bason has nothing but praise for his newly-adopted hometown. He is an avid bicycle rider and enjoys the city’s cultural offerings. He regularly rides his bike to work, as well as along scenic bike paths and Griffith Park. He has even ridden his bike from Los Angeles to San Diego on several occasions, an 11- to 14-hour ride.
In addition to biking, Judge Bason enjoys Los Angeles’ cultural scene, including the large number of quality museums such as the Peterson, LACMA, Norton Simon, the Getty, and others. If he could split his time between his favorite cities, he would live in Los Angeles, San Francisco, London and Paris.
Observations from the Bench
Judge Bason believes that part of his responsibility as a judge is to give back by taking in externs and training them to become good bankruptcy lawyers. “You are fortunate if the externs give back more than they receive, but that misses the point—it is a public service to train them.”
In an attempt to bring innovation and cost savings to the bankruptcy process, Judge Bason spearheaded a judge’s group to revise the model plan and disclosure statement for smaller chapter 11 cases. Judge Bason, with the help of financial advisor Brad Smith, programmed an automated spreadsheet that attempts to simplify the process for creating a plan and disclosure statement. Once basic information is filled in, the spreadsheet program automatically populates other required fields, including various necessary calculations. He calls it a “labor of love” that he is in the process of revising and then would like to take on the road and introduce to bankruptcy practitioners and courts alike. Judge Bason believes that for some over-sized chapter 13 cases that are required to go into chapter 11, a chapter 11 is too expensive and the spreadsheet may help reduce costs. The spreadsheet may also help small business debtors with their chapter 11 cases. Judge Bason’s spreadsheet is already available on the Central District of California Bankruptcy Court’s website at: http://www.cacb.uscourts.gov/forms/chapter-11-plan. As noted by the Judge, not all judges permit the use of the spreadsheet, and you should check each judge’s local rules.
Judge Bason is very mindful of the current challenging environment for bankruptcy practitioners. He doubts that there is going to be a change anytime soon with the reality that large cases are more often than not filed in Delaware and New York, instead of California. “It’s become something people are used to. Not many large cases will be filed here, and that’s unfortunate.” The Judge also recognizes that we’re living in unusual economic times, where we’re experiencing a “non-recovery recovery, with things just puttering along.” This is “a tough spot for practitioners.”
This article was written by Corey R. Weber, a partner at Ezra Brutzkus Gubner LLP and Co-Vice Chair of the ILC, Uzzi O. Raanan, a partner at Danning, Gill, Diamond & Kollitz, LLP, a past ILC Co-Chair and a member of the Executive Committee of the California State Bar’s Business Law Section, and Asa S. Hami, an attorney at SulmeyerKupetz, A Professional Corporation, and Secretary of the ILC.
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Insolvency Law Committee