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August 2006

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


Five Bankruptcy Judges Top 35 Years of Service

The five longest-serving bankruptcy judges, each with more than 35 years in his respective court, share a love for the job and the opinion that 1978 was a pivotal year for bankruptcy law.

"The Reform Act of 1978, for the first time in history, established a functional, independent bankruptcy court," said Bankruptcy Judge Alexander Paskay (M.D. Fla.), who has served since 1963.

Previously, those who in 1973 had their job titles changed from referees in bankruptcy to bankruptcy judges had little of the authority they wield today. "In 1978, the jurisdiction of bankruptcy law was greatly expanded," said Bankruptcy Judge John Peterson (D. Mont.), whose service also began in 1963.

Paskay and Peterson are joined by Bankruptcy Judges Joe Lee (E.D. Ky.), Arthur Votolato (D. R.I.), and W. Homer Drake (N.D. Ga.) as the five currently longest- serving bankruptcy judges. Votolato’s court service began in 1968; Drake’s in 1964; and Lee’s in 1961.

The all-time longest-serving bankruptcy judge (then a referee) may have been the late Ole E. Wyckoff of Grafton, West Virginia He was appointed in 1906 and served until 1969—63 years.

Bankruptcy judges are appointed to 14-year terms by the 12 regional courts of appeals. Those terms can be renewed, and once a bankruptcy judge retires he or she can be recalled on an ad hoc or extended basis for periods of up to three years. Additionally, recall periods are subject to renewal.

Lee, Paskay, and Peterson are retired but have been recalled by their circuit’s judicial council more than once. Votolato and Drake are active judges, having never retired.

Votolato is the longest continuously serving active bankruptcy judge. Drake is the longest noncontinuously serving active bankruptcy judge. He left the bankruptcy court in 1976 and returned to private practice before being named a bankruptcy judge in 1979.

Votolato, the only bankruptcy judge in Rhode Island, sits in Providence and "never got into the habit of wearing a robe on the bench." Local bankruptcy lawyers "now are used to seeing a guy without a robe preside," he explained.

Peterson, whose official duty station is Butte, said he enjoys "the excellent relationship among bankruptcy judges across the nation."

"Many get together once a year at the National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges meeting," he said. "It’s always informative and a pleasure."

Lee also cited "the camaraderie formed with other bankruptcy judges over the years" as one of the joys of the job. Others include "a dedicated group of bankruptcy court employees and attorneys who, with few exceptions, are civil and professional in their practice before the court."

Drake, who sits in Atlanta and his hometown of Newnan, also looks forward to reporting for work each day. "I’m 73, and am enjoying my job as much as when I started," he said.