Kelly v. Robinson
Annotate this Case
479 U.S. 36 (1986)
U.S. Supreme Court
Kelly v. Robinson, 479 U.S. 36 (1986)
Kelly v. Robinson
Argued Oct. 8, 1986
Decided Nov. 12, 1986
479 U.S. 36
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
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.
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