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Ginsburg temporarily blocks Chrysler deal

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg put a temporary hold Monday on the deal to sell Chrysler to save it from collapse.  Her order, however, simply gives her or the full Court more time to ponder whether to postpone the sale further, or allow it to go forward.  The order can be found here.

It would have taken the votes of five members of the Court to grant a full postponement.  Ginsburg’s brief, unexplained order said only that the bankruptcy court’s decisions approving the sale were “stayed pending further order” by her or the Court.

The Justice acted just minutes before a 4 p.m. deadline that the Second Circuit Court had set last Friday. At that hour, a delay ordered by the Circuit Court expired.  If Ginsburg had not acted, the sale would have been cleared under the terms of the lower court’s order.  Her order stayed the orders of the bankruptcy court approving the sale, since those orders would have gone into effect when the Circuit Court delay ran out.

The action had almost no legal significance, however.  The deal remains in legal limbo until Ginsburg, as the Circuit Justice, or the full Court takes some definitive action. There is now no timetable for further action at the Supreme Court, although the terms of the deal allow Chrysler’s new business spouse — Fiat, the Italian automaker — to back out as of next Monday if the deal has not closed.  Moreover, the papers filed in the Supreme Court have suggested that Chrysler is losing money at the rate of $100 million a day, pending the sale. That gives the Justices some incentive not to let much time pass before acting.

Among the likely explanations for Ginsburg’s action:

* Ginsburg may have decided to share the decision on what to do with her eight colleagues, and they needed more time to think or talk about it.

* Members of the Court may have decided that they wanted to give some explanation, or perhaps some may have decided to dissent and wanted a chance to prepare a statement saying so.  In the meantime, it was her task, as the Circuit Justice, to impose a limited stay.

* Ginsburg or the Court may be waiting to see how the Second Circuit explains its decision to uphold the terms of the sale.  The Circuit Court issued no opinion on Friday, indicating that such an explanation would come “in due course,” although the expectation was that one or more opinions would emerge from those judges on Monday.

The wording of Ginsburg’s order — “stayed pending further order” — is the conventional way by which a Justice or the Court carries out an action that is expected to be short in duration, and not controlling — or even hinting at — the ultimate outcome.  Any speculation that her order meant the Court was leaning toward a further postponement would be unfounded.

The Circuit Court had given Ginsburg no option other than the one she chose if she wanted more time for herself or the Court to consider a large stack of filings for and against the idea of delaying the deal.  Those papers began arriving at the Court electronically shortly before midnight Saturday and continued up until shortly before 10 a.m. Monday.  Court aides worked through the weekend to gather them and get them ready for action, although Ginsburg herself may have begun studying them.

In the form used by the lawyers seeking delay, the applications were considered emergency matters for the action of a Circuit Justice — that is, an individual member of the Court assigned to deal with such temporary matters from a specific geographic federal Circuit, in this case the Circuit that includes New York.