The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California has appointed the Honorable Christopher B. Latham as Chief Bankruptcy Judge for a seven-year term effective November 1, 2021. In this role, Judge Latham is responsible for ensuring the Bankruptcy Court’s rules are observed and that its business “is handled effectively and expeditiously.” 28 U.S.C. § 154(b).
Judge Latham takes over the Chief Judge duties from the Honorable Margaret M. Mann. Judge Mann had served as Chief Judge since October 1, 2019. During her term, she guided the Bankruptcy Court through the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Court implemented guidelines for mandatory telephonic hearings, temporarily suspended “wet signature” requirements, and made other changes to safely continue its operations throughout the pandemic. Judge Mann also oversaw the Bankruptcy Court’s selection of a new Clerk of Court: Michael Williams.
“Being a Chief Judge during the past two tumultuous years has been a privilege because of the support of my colleagues, our Clerk of Court Michael Williams, and our court family,” Judge Mann said in a statement. “I know Judge Latham will be a great leader for our Court in the future.” Judge Mann will remain a Bankruptcy Judge, with her current term set to expire in 2024.
Introducing Chief Bankruptcy Judge Latham
Judge Latham is a Southern California native who received his bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Irvine. He later earned a master’s in anthropology from Yale University and graduated from Yale Law School.
Judge Latham started his legal career as a law clerk for the Hon. Earl B. Gilliam, U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of California. He then entered practice with Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP. After fourteen years at the firm, Judge Latham joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California. As an Assistant U.S. Attorney, he oversaw criminal bankruptcy fraud prosecutions and handled a variety of civil matters, including bankruptcy, tax, eminent domain, and mortgage fraud cases. Judge Latham also served on the San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program’s Board of Directors and regularly performed pro bono service. He was appointed as a U.S. Bankruptcy Judge on October 1, 2012 – filling a vacancy left by Judge Peter W. Bowie. The San Diego Chapter had the opportunity to ask Judge Latham about being a Bankruptcy Judge and his background.
Judge Latham, how did you first become interested in bankruptcy law?
I actually started my career as a bankruptcy lawyer, after a judicial clerkship in our district court. When I was a summer associate in 1991 there were strong signs of a recession brewing following the First Gulf War. So I was plainly told to take a bankruptcy course in law school and be prepared to join the firm in that department. I loved the class, and also enjoyed practicing bankruptcy law as a young attorney. After the economy picked up again, I ultimately switched to commercial litigation. Then when I went to the U.S. Attorney’s Office some years later, I had the chance to work on bankruptcy cases there. They were very interesting matters to be handling, representing the government’s interests. In connection with that work, I was also invited to take on criminal bankruptcy fraud cases. And that was really fascinating as well.
What is your favorite part about being a Bankruptcy Judge?
Well first, I absolutely love being a bankruptcy judge. It is a true honor to serve in this role. My fellow judges are brilliant and a joy to be around. As for the work itself, I enjoy the law and motion practice, as well as the numerous trials we have. It’s also wonderful working with law clerks. I hire a new one each year, and view that as an important way to help the formation of attorneys in the profession. More generally, bankruptcy is just a very gratifying area to be a jurist in. When you think about it, most all interested parties are expected to come out better because of the bankruptcy. A debtor with a discharge obviously does. Unsecured creditors as a group end up sharing more equitably in any distribution available to them. And seeing businesses get back on their feet to continue their economic activity and employment of people is particularly satisfying. Happy things don’t always occur in court, but much of the time the chances of such an outcome are higher in bankruptcy than in other practice areas, I think.
What makes a successful advocate in bankruptcy court?
I would say that successful advocates in bankruptcy practice are those who understand and maintain the right balance between zeal and achieving the client’s ends in the most reasonable way. Good attorneys are typically civil and reliable. They never mislead or exaggerate to the court. I like to be able to rely on what counsel tell me. But the trust is easily lost if their assertions don’t accord with reality. Most every bankruptcy case involves – in one way or another – insufficient funds. This means that efficiency and a spirit of compromise are key and highly valued in a bankruptcy practitioner. The most wasteful cases are those that have some emotional or psychological motivation in the background. That can lead parties, and so their counsel, to pursue ends that don’t always make economic sense. And this in turn can frequently result in waste, inefficiency, and less to go around for everyone.
What qualities do you look for in law clerk applicants?
Working with law clerks – mentoring and training them – is one of the great joys of my position. I look for individuals who have done well in law school, top 25% at least, and who can write well. I also require some type of academic journal work. It doesn’t have to be the main law review, but they need to have that experience. It’s just invaluable for training their attention to detail in writing as well as mastering the Bluebook format. Also, I want to see that they have some real interest in the subject area. I don’t always require a bankruptcy course during law school, but I need to see the affirmative reason why they’re seeking a bankruptcy clerkship as opposed to another type. Even then, many of them are surprised to hear how essentially all of the federal civil practice is replicated in bankruptcy through adversary proceedings. So while it sounds like a narrow experience, in fact it’s quite broad-based.
Anything else interesting in your background that you would like to share?
I will just share that before law school, I was a graduate student in anthropology. I was working my way toward a Ph.D. with a focus on modes of subsistence (mostly to do with agriculture) in the Pacific Islands. There came a point when I realized I was perhaps not cut out for that field after all, and so I returned to my earlier plan of becoming a lawyer. I ended with a master’s degree, and I’m happy I did!