News & Publications
The College Magazine - Fall 2008
The View From The Bench
Jean FitzSimon (A73)
Presiding over the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Judge Jean FitzSimon (A73)
seeks the gray areas in the cases that come before her.
The Philadelphia couple was drowning in debt. They both held low-wage jobs: she as a waitress, and he as a retail clerk. A compulsive gambler, the man hid $120,000 in credit card bills from his wife. When he finally hit the jackpot, he spent some of the money and gave her the rest to pay off their mortgage. But other creditors were waiting, and that's what brought the man before Judge Jean K. FitzSimon (A73) in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania last year.
In a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, a debtor can seek a discharge of certain debts, preventing creditors from taking further legal action to collect. It's unusual for FitzSimon to deny a discharge, but in this case she ruled that the man intended to "hinder, delay, and defraud" his unsecured creditors. "This is not the action of an 'honest but unfortunate debtor' seeking a fresh start," she wrote in her ruling.
Reflecting on the case later, FitzSimon said it was a difficult one for her. "It's not my fault that this man gambled. But you have this poor woman and her two children who will effectively be out on the street unless they can refinance their home," she says. "It was very clear that these were poor people who were in a bad situation, but the code was clear. The only thing that's harder in what I do is when someone actually has to lose their house."
At a time when many Americans are struggling financially, FitzSimon sees the human costs of ready credit. In the case of the lottery winner, she wonders: how did a man earning $19,000 a year acquire 9 credit cards and a $200,000 line of credit?
"There are people out there digging themselves into a hole who are not planning to pay off their debt," FitzSimon acknowledges. "But there are also people who lost their jobs, or they have illnesses and medical bills they can't pay. So they put it on the credit card this month, thinking that maybe next month they can get a second job, that somehow they can catch up. But they never do."
There's plenty of fault to spread around for the credit crisis, she adds. No one is ever forced to use a credit card, but teaser interest rates, credit checks, confusing language, and other marketing devices are at best ethically questionable, FitzSimon says. And no one in Washington paid attention when the economy was booming.
FitzSimon speaks from personal experience. Right out of law school (the University of Notre Dame), she acquired two credit cards, each with an $1,800 limit. She used them to equip her first apartment, buy work clothes, and acquire the necessary elements for "building a life" as a staff attorney with the Department of Justice. Concerned about mounting debt on top of school loans, she kept her spending down. "I was smart enough to know I had to pay more than just the minimum, but it still took me three full years to pay those cards back down to zero," she recalls. She has never carried a balance since.
FitzSimon was attracted to the law for the same reason she was drawn to St. John's: the freedom to pursue a wide range of interests. She began her legal career at the Justice Department, where she started out in the Office of Information and Privacy. She later moved to Chicago, where she was appointed Acting U.S. Trustee for the Northern District of Illinois, gaining expertise in bankruptcy law.
After 10 years with the government, she needed a new challenge and launched a private practice in Phoenix, working on behalf of debtors. Apart from the long hours, she enjoyed working on her own. But a headhunter led her to a job as in-house counsel for Sears, which was dealing with legal troubles stemming from its debt collection practices. In less than two years, she became the company's chief compliance officer and vice president. Her skill in digging Sears out of legal quagmires led her to Whitehall Jewelers, which was struggling with financial difficulties and fending off a proxy fight. As part of a small executive team, she sometimes put in 100 hours in a workweek, but she enjoyed great discounts on jewelry.
Climbing the corporate ladder and keeping abreast of developments in the law left little time for a social life. But FitzSimon's life changed when she made time for a summer alumni program in Santa Fe in 1986, where she was introduced to therapist Lee Fischler (SF68). They married in 1987.
Philadelphia is Fischler's hometown, and his love for the city is one of the reasons FitzSimon put her name in the hat when the bankruptcy court vacancy came up. As a merit appointment, not a political one, the post was within her reach, but she was still surprised to be offered the job. "Did you mean to call Jean FitzSimon?" she asked the Circuit Court judge who called her with the news. With the courtroom filled with friends and family, she was sworn in on Aug. 16, 2006. She and Fischler found a place close to the Philadelphia Art Museum, and she settled into her chambers in the city's massive Robert C. Nix United States Courthouse.
A year later, FitzSimon is still pinching herself. "In spite of the long hours, I have enjoyed all my jobs," says FitzSimon. "But never in my life have I been as satisfied as this."
To an outsider, it may seem that her court is where the American dream comes to die. But FitzSimon tries to make the system work for everyone. Few individuals get the opportunity to interact with the legislative or executive branches of American government; FitzSimon wants citizens to see the judiciary at its best. "I have the opportunity to give people a magnificent experience of the court system," she explains. "They may not agree with what I do, but they feel that they are heard and that I mean to be fair. If you're ever going to have the sense that government can be trusted, it's going to be with the judiciary. It's incredibly important that we treat people with respect and listen to them."
After she's reviewed a case, FitzSimon may point out the weaknesses and strengths she sees and give the parties a chance to come to an agreement before she makes her official ruling. "Sometimes if the borrower can come up with any kind of plan, any source of funds, the creditor may be better off. Then they can both walk away with half a loaf," she says.
It takes more time in court to do things this way, FitzSimon says, but it's closer to her idea of justice. She explains her approach by employing the men-de construction from Ancient Greek: on the one hand this, on the other hand that. "I've never been good at seeing things in black and white," says FitzSimon. "I think the world is largely gray."
In a bankruptcy court, helping each party see the other's side often leads to a better solution. The creditor recoups some money; the debtor regains a measure of control in his or her life. There are days, though, "when I can't make magic happen," FitzSimon says. "There are the days when someone has to lose their house."
After 30 years of impossible hours FitzSimon is enjoying more free time: to spend with her husband, enjoy Philadelphia's cultural offerings, and sample the city's fine restaurants. A former member of the college's Board of Visitors and Governors, she hopes to become more involved with the college again. But as enjoyable as her job is, it can be unpredictable: "There are days when I read the pleadings and it looks like an easy, straightforward case. Then the lawyers start talking, and it's 'whoa, Nelly, bar the door—we're going to be here a while,'" she says. "It's not always pretty. But it's justice. And it works."
By Rosemary Harty