Kelly v. Robinson
479 U.S. 36

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Kelly v. Robinson, 479 U.S. 36 (1986)

Kelly v. Robinson

No. 85-1033

Argued Oct. 8, 1986

Decided Nov. 12, 1986

479 U.S. 36

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

THE SECOND CIRCUIT

Syllabus

In 1980, respondent pleaded guilty in a Connecticut state court to a larceny charge based on her wrongful receipt of welfare benefits from the Connecticut Department of Income Maintenance. She was sentenced to a prison term, but the court suspended execution of the sentence and placed her on probation for five years. As a condition of probation, the court ordered respondent to make restitution through monthly payments to the Connecticut Office of Adult Probation until the end of her probation period. Under Connecticut statutes, restitution payments are sent to the Probation Office, and are then forwarded to the victim. In 1981, respondent filed a voluntary petition under Chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code in Bankruptcy Court, listing the restitution obligation as a debt. The Connecticut agencies, although notified, did not file proofs of claim or objections to discharge, and the Bankruptcy Court subsequently granted respondent a discharge. She made no further restitution payments. After the Probation Office informed her that it considered the restitution obligation nondischargeable, she filed a proceeding against petitioner state officials in the Bankruptcy Court, seeking a declaration that the restitution obligation was discharged. The court concluded that, even if the restitution obligation was a debt subject to bankruptcy jurisdiction, it was automatically nondischargeable under § 523(a)(7) of the Bankruptcy Code, which provides that a discharge in bankruptcy does not affect any debt that

"is for a fine, penalty, or forfeiture payable to and for the benefit of a governmental unit, and is not compensation for actual pecuniary loss."

The District Court adopted the Bankruptcy Court's proposed disposition of the case, but the Court of Appeals reversed.

Held: Section 523(a)(7) preserves from discharge in Chapter 7 any condition a state criminal court imposes as part of a criminal sentence. Thus, restitution obligations, imposed as conditions of probation in state criminal proceedings, are not dischargeable. Pp. 479 U. S. 43-53.

(a) Despite the language of the earlier Bankruptcy Act of 1898 that apparently allowed criminal penalties to be discharged, most courts refused to allow a discharge to affect a state criminal court's judgment. When the present Bankruptcy Code was enacted in 1978, there was a

Page 479 U. S. 37

widely accepted judicial exception to discharge for criminal sentences, including restitution obligations imposed as part of such sentences. In construing the scope of bankruptcy codifications, this Court has followed the rule that if Congress intends for legislation to change the interpretation of a judicially created concept, it makes that intent specific. Midlantic National Bank v. New Jersey Dept. of Environmental Protection,474 U. S. 494. Pp. 479 U. S. 43-47.

(b) The basis for the judicial exception here is the deep conviction that federal bankruptcy courts should not invalidate the results of state criminal proceedings. Although it might be true that Connecticut officials could have ensured continued enforcement of the criminal judgment against respondent by objecting to discharge under the Code, that fact does not justify an interpretation of the Code that is contrary to the long-prevailing view that fines and penalties are not affected by a discharge. Moreover, reliance on a right to appear and object to discharge would create uncertainties and impose undue burdens on state officials. The prospect of federal remission of judgments imposed by state criminal judges would hamper the flexibility of those judges in choosing the combination of imprisonment, fines, and restitution most likely to further the rehabilitative and deterrent goals of state criminal justice systems. Pp. 479 U. S. 47-49.

(c) On its face, § 523(a)(7) does not compel the conclusion that a discharge voids restitution orders imposed as conditions of probation by state courts. Nothing in the House and Senate Reports indicates that this language should be read so intrusively. Section 523(a)(7) protects traditional criminal fines. Although restitution, unlike traditional fines, is forwarded to the victim and may be calculated by reference to the amount of harm the offender has caused, neither of the statute's qualifying clauses -- namely, the fines must be "to and for the benefit of a governmental unit," and "not compensation for pecuniary loss" -- allows the discharge of a criminal judgment that takes the form of restitution. The decision to impose restitution generally does not turn on the victim's injury, but on the penal goals of the State and the defendant's situation. Pp. 479 U. S. 50-53.

776 F.2d 30, reversed.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C. J., and BRENNAN, WHITE, BLACKMUN, O'CONNOR, and SCALIA, JJ., joined. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which STEVENS, J., joined, post, p. 479 U. S. 53.

Page 479 U. S. 38

JUSTICE POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted review in this case to decide whether restitution obligations, imposed as conditions of probation in state criminal proceedings, are dischargeable in proceedings under Chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code.

I

In 1980, Carolyn Robinson pleaded guilty to larceny in the second degree. The charge was based on her wrongful receipt of $9,932.95 in welfare benefits from the Connecticut Department of Income Maintenance. On November 14, 1980, the Connecticut Superior Court sentenced Robinson to a prison term of not less than one year nor more than three years. The court suspended execution of the sentence and

Page 479 U. S. 39

placed Robinson on probation for five years. As a condition of probation, the judge ordered Robinson to make restitution [Footnote 1] to the State of Connecticut Office of Adult Probation (Probation Office) at the rate of $100 per month, commencing January 16, 1981, and continuing until the end of her probation. [Footnote 2]

On February 5, 1981, Robinson filed a voluntary petition under Chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code, 11 U.S.C. § 701 et seq., in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Connecticut. That petition listed the restitution obligation as a debt. On February 20, 1981, the Bankruptcy Court notified both of the Connecticut agencies of Robinson's petition and informed them that April 27, 1981, was the deadline for filing objections to discharge. The agencies did not file proofs of claim or objections to discharge, apparently because they took the position that the bankruptcy would not affect the conditions of Robinson's probation. Thus, the agencies did not participate in the distribution of Robinson's estate. On May 14, 1981, the Bankruptcy Court granted Robinson a discharge. See § 727.

At the time Robinson received her discharge in bankruptcy, she had paid $450 in restitution. On May 20, 1981, her attorney wrote the Probation Office that she believed the discharge had altered the conditions of Robinson's probation, voiding the condition that she pay restitution. Robinson made no further payments.

The Connecticut Probation Office did not respond to this letter until February 1984, when it informed Robinson that it

Page 479 U. S. 40

considered the obligation to pay restitution nondischargeable. Robinson responded by filing an adversary proceeding in the Bankruptcy Court, seeking a declaration that the restitution obligation had been discharged, as well as an injunction to prevent the State's officials from forcing Robinson to pay.

After a trial, the Bankruptcy Court entered a memorandum and proposed order, concluding that the 1981 discharge in bankruptcy had not altered the conditions of Robinson's probation. Robinson v. McGuigan, 45 B.R. 423 (1984). The court adopted the analysis it had applied in a similar case decided one month earlier, In re Pellegrino (Pellegrino v. Division of Criminal Justice), 42 B.R. 129 (1984). In Pellegrino, the court began with the Bankruptcy Code's definitional sections. First, §101(11) defines a "debt" as a "liability on a claim." In turn, §101(4) defines a "claim" as a

"right to payment, whether or not such right is reduced to judgment, liquidated, unliquidated, fixed, contingent, matured, unmatured, disputed, undisputed, legal, equitable, secured, or unsecured."

Finally, §101(9) defines a "creditor" as an "entity that has a claim against the debtor that arose at the time of or before the order for relief concerning the debtor."

The Pellegrino court then examined the statute under which the Connecticut judge had sentenced the debtor to pay restitution. Restitution appears as one of the conditions of probation enumerated in Conn.Gen.Stat. §53a-30 (1985). Under that section, restitution payments are sent to the Probation Office. The payments then are forwarded to the victim. Although the Connecticut penal code does not provide for enforcement of the probation conditions by the victim, it does authorize the trial court to issue a warrant for the arrest of a criminal defendant who has violated a condition of probation. § 53a-32.

Because the Connecticut statute does not allow the victim to enforce a right to receive payment, the court concluded

Page 479 U. S. 41

that neither the victim nor the Probation Office had a "right to payment," and hence neither was owed a "debt" under the Bankruptcy Code. It argued:

"Unlike an obligation which arises out of a contractual, statutory or common law duty, here the obligation is rooted in the traditional responsibility of a state to protect its citizens by enforcing its criminal statutes and to rehabilitate an offender by imposing a criminal sanction intended for that purpose."

42 B.R. at 133. The court acknowledged the tension between its conclusion and the Code's expansive definition of debt, but found an exception to the statutory definition in "the long-standing tradition of restraint by federal courts from interference with traditional functions of state governments." Id. at 134. The court concluded that, even if the probation condition was a debt subject to bankruptcy jurisdiction, it was nondischargeable under § 523(a)(7) of the Code. That subsection provides that a discharge in bankruptcy does not affect any debt that

"is for a fine, penalty, or forfeiture payable to and for the benefit of a governmental unit, and is not compensation for actual pecuniary loss."

The court also concluded that the purpose of the restitution condition was "to promote the rehabilitation of the offender, not to compensate the victim." 42 B.R. at 137. It specifically rejected the argument that the restitution must be deemed compensatory because the amount precisely matched the victim's loss. It noted that the state statute allows an offender to

"make restitution of the fruits of his offense or make restitution, in an amount he can afford to pay or provide in a suitable manner, for the loss or damage caused thereby,"

Conn.Gen.Stat. §53a-30(a)(4) (1985). In its view, the Connecticut statute focuses

"upon the offender and not on the victim, and . . . restitution is part of the criminal penalty rather than compensation for a victim's actual loss."

42 B.R. at 137. Thus, the Bankruptcy Court held that the bankruptcy discharge had not affected the conditions of Pellegrino's probation. The United States District Court for

Page 479 U. S. 42

the District of Connecticut adopted the Bankruptcy Court's proposed dispositions of Pellegrino and this case without alteration.

The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed. In re Robinson, 776 F.2d 30 (1985). It first examined the Code's definition of debt. Although it recognized that most courts had reached the opposite conclusion, the court decided that a restitution obligation imposed as a condition of probation is a debt. It relied on the legislative history of the Code that evinced Congress' intent to broaden the definition of "debt" from the much narrower definition of the Bankruptcy Act of 1898. The court also noted that anomalies might result from a conclusion that such an obligation is not a debt. Most importantly, nondebt status would deprive a State of the opportunity to participate in the distribution of the debtor's estate.

Having concluded that restitution obligations are debts, the court turned to the question of dischargeability. The court stated that the appropriate Connecticut agency probably could have avoided discharge of the debt if it had objected under §§523(a)(2) or 523(a)(4) of the Code. [Footnote 3] As no objections to discharge were filed, the court concluded that the State could rely only on § 523(a)(7), the subsection that provides for automatic nondischargeability for certain debts. [Footnote 4]

Page 479 U. S. 43

The court then looked to the text of the Connecticut statute to determine whether Robinson's probation condition was "compensation for actual pecuniary loss" within the meaning of § 523(a)(7). But where the Bankruptcy Court had considered the entire state probation system, the Court of Appeals focused only on the language that allows a restitution order to be assessed "for the loss or damage caused [by the crime]," Conn.Gen.Stat. §53a-30(a)(4) (1985). The court thought this language compelled the conclusion that the probation condition was "compensation for actual pecuniary loss." It held, therefore, that this particular condition of Robinson's probation was not protected from discharge by §523(a)(7). Accordingly, it reversed the District Court.

We granted the State's petition for a writ of certiorari. 475 U.S. 1009 (1986). We have jurisdiction to review the judgment of the Court of Appeals under 28 U.S.C. §1254(1). We reverse.

II

The Court of Appeals' decision focused primarily on the language of §§101 and 523 of the Code. Of course, the "starting point in every case involving construction of a statute is the language itself." Blue Chip Stamps v. Manor Drug Stores,421 U. S. 723, 421 U. S. 756 (1975) (POWELL, J., concurring). But the text is only the starting point. As JUSTICE O'CONNOR explained last Term:

"'

I

n expounding a statute, we must not be guided by a single sentence or member of a sentence, but look to the provisions of the whole law, and to its object and policy.''"

Offshore Logistics, Inc. v. Tallentire,477 U. S. 207, 477 U. S. 221 (1986) (quoting Mastro Plastics Corp. v. NLRB,350 U. S. 270, 350 U. S. 285 (1956) (in turn quoting United States v. Heirs of Boisdore, 8 How. 113, 49 U. S. 122 (1849))). In this case, we must consider the language of §§ 101 and 523

Page 479 U. S. 44

in light of the history of bankruptcy court deference to criminal judgments and in light of the interests of the States in unfettered administration of their criminal justice systems.

A

Courts traditionally have been reluctant to interpret federal bankruptcy statutes to remit state criminal judgments. The present text of Title 11, commonly referred to as the Bankruptcy Code, was enacted in 1978 to replace the Bankruptcy Act of 1898, ch. 541, 30 Stat. 544. [Footnote 5] The treatment of criminal judgments under the Act of 1898 informs our understanding of the language of the Code.

First, § 57 of the Act established the category of "allowable" debts. See 3 Collier on Bankruptcy

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