In a common sense ruling sure to have union advocates howling, a Federal judge says San Bernardino, California eligible for bankruptcy

Judge Meredith Jury of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Central District of California, said the city of 210,000, located 60 miles east of Los Angeles, was eligible for bankruptcy protection “as a matter of law based on incontrovertible facts.”

The tentative ruling came despite objections by the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, or Calpers. The $260 billion pension fund is the city’s biggest creditor.

San Bernardino filed for bankruptcy protection one year ago.

If the jury affirms the ruling, it would clear the way for the city to negotiate with its creditors and produce a final bankruptcy plan on which the judge will ultimately have to rule.

 The ruling also sets up a high-stakes battle between Calpers and other creditors, including Wall Street bondholders and insurers, over how they will be treated in the bankruptcy.

The preliminary ruling follows a similar judgment for the city of Stockton, California, which was found eligible for bankruptcy protection in April.

“I don’t think anyone in this courtroom seriously thought the city was anything but insolvent,” Jury said. A city must be insolvent and have proof to have negotiated in good faith with creditors to be eligible for Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy.

Calpers argues that it should not be treated like other creditors and must be paid in full because of California state law. Bondholders argue that federal bankruptcy law trumps state statutes and say Calpers should be forced to fight with other creditors over how much they are paid under an exit plan.

The judge said the one creditor who wanted her to dismiss the bankruptcy was Calpers. But she said: “If Calpers gets all the money they want, under what they say is their statutory right, who isn’t going to get paid? All the employees? How is that going to help Calpers?”

If CalPERS gets stiffed and it should (and so should bondholders dumb enough to buy San Bernardino bonds), it will pave the way for cities across the nation to finally get out from under the unfair burden of preposterous union wage and benefit agreements.

This was a welcome ruling.

Mike “Mish” Shedlock