Last year’s wave of bank failures had clearly carried over into the New Year. On Friday, January 22, 2010, the FDIC closed five more banks, already bringing the year to date number of bank closures to nine. (At this same point last year, the FDIC had only closed three banks, before eventually closing 140 banks for the entire calendar years.).


The nine banks that have failed so far this year are a surprisingly diverse bunch. The closures are distributed across eight different states. While three of the failed banks were tiny, with assets of under $70 million, three of then nine were pretty good sized, with assets of over $1 billion. Perhaps the most noteworthy discernable trait of the group is that three of them were located in the Pacific Northwest, two in Washington, one in Oregon. Bank failures are not unknown to that part of the country – including, of course, the Washington Mutual closure, the largest bank failure of all time.


But though the bank failures have continued to flood in, litigation involving the directors and officers of the failed institutions has – at least so far— been relatively light. Nevertheless, I continue to believe that it will only be a matter of time before the FDIC begins to file significant numbers of lawsuits. My expectation in this regard is largely driven by the fact that during the S&L crisis in the 80s and early 90s litigation was such an important component of the FDIC’s efforts to recoup its losses. The FDIC has filed a number of notices of claims with some bank officials and their D&O carriers, but so far it has not filed lawsuits in significant numbers.


While we all wait to see what the FDIC will do, investors in some failed banks are moving ahead with their own claims. For example, as reported in the January 15, 2010 Greeley (Colo.) Tribune (here), almost 60 investors filed a lawsuit on December 15, 2009 in Weld County (Colo.) District Court former directors and officers of New Frontier Bank. The bank, which was located in Greely, Colorado, was taken over by regulators in April 2009. Prior to its closing, the bank had assets of over $2 billion.


The circumstances surrounding New Frontier’s demise were the subject of a June 16, 2009 Wall Street Journal article entitled "Town’s Friendly Bank Left Nasty Mess" (here). Among other things, the article reports that the bank’s failure "is expected to set off a cascade of bankruptcies and foreclosures across several counties" and that companies that relied on the bank for financing "are cutting staff and curtailing payments to suppliers."


At least as depicted in the Journal article, New Frontier’s failure represents something of a modern day morality tale reflecting the excesses that can cause a banking crisis. New Frontier was particularly dependent on so-called "hot money" – that is, brokered deposits on behalf of investors seeking higher rates of return on their deposits. The flood of hot money facilitated the bank’s business lending, "leading to meteoric growth and favorable press." But, according to comments by the bank’s competitors quoted in the article, the bank "had looser credit requirements that virtually any other bank in town." The other banks reportedly used New Frontier as a safety valve, by urging their own customers that had fallen behind on their payments to refinance their loans at New Frontier.


One factor that proved particularly dangerous for the bank was its heavy concentration in agricultural loans, particularly for local dairies. A number of the borrowers fell behind or defaulted after prices for milk and other products fell. Many of the defaulting borrowers themselves now face ruin. The Journal’s photo essay about the bank’s failure, here, reflects the community and many of the individuals hit by the bank’s closure.


A flood of public accusations have followed in the wake of the bank’s failure. For example, the December 30, 2009 Denver Post had an article (here), reporting supposedly improper practices at the bank and also that the bank’s practices are the subject of a Department of Justice investigation.


According to the Greely Tribune article, the investors allege in their lawsuit that senior bank officials engaged in a host of improprieties including reckless lending activities without regard to loan quality, insider deals that improperly benefited board members and many instances of conflicts of interest among board members. Among other things, the complaint alleges that insiders received huge loans on preferred terms, and that the bank’s headquarter building was built by the construction company owned by one board member and that rather than owing the building outright, the bank leased it from a company owned by other board members, on terms that were heavily favorable to the leasing company.


The New Frontier circumstances may be unusual because of the nature of the concerns. But the level of scrutiny the bank is now facing in the wake of its closure is not uncommon. In many instances, the questions will eventually take the form of accusations presented in the form of a lawsuit. Before all is said and done, there will be many more lawsuits like that filed by the New Frontier investors. And that does not even take into account the lawsuits we are likely to see from the FDIC. I continue to believe that the arrival of failed bank lawsuits will be one of the top litigation stories of 2010.


None of this has been lost on the D&O insurance carriers. D&O insurance for many commercial banks has become a much more expensive proposition, and for some banks an outright challenge. As reflected in a January 15, 2010 article in the Atlanta Business Chronicle (here, registration required), banks’ D&O insurance costs have begun to "skyrocket across the board" and terms and conditions have narrowed substantially. The insurance marketplace is particularly difficult for banks operating under regulatory orders. In light of the continued wave of bank failures and the anticipated arrival of claims, the insurance marketplace conditions seem unlikely to improve anytime soon.


Special thanks to the several loyal readers who sent me many of the various items to which I linked in this post. I am always grateful when readers send me material, it helps me and it helps other readers as well.


Reflections on the Citizens United Case: The Internet is awash with instant analysis from the commentariat about the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in the Citizens United case. I will leave it to the pundits to sound off about the case’s outcome. For myself, I was struck by the heated rhetoric of the majority opinion and the vehemence of the dissent. (Justice Stevens took the extraordinary step of reading his dissent from the bench, in a special session apparently scheduled for the purpose of allowing him to do so.)


The narrowness of the margin of decision is nothing new, since 5-4 opinions have been an unfortunate staple of the divided court for the last several years. But the tone of the language used in the opinions in the Citizens United case suggest that the Court’s proceedings have taken on a deeply personal character, with emotional overtones that have become all too public. It does kind of make you wonder what the heck is going on up there.


I have to admit that I am a sucker for the genre of popular literature in which the Court’s inner workings are "revealed." I devour books like Jeffrey Toobin’s The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Courtand Supreme Conflict: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Control of the United States Supreme Court by Jan Crawford Greenburg. Among other things, these books underscore the fact that one of any President’s most enduring legacies is the identity of the justices he has named to the Court. The books also make clear that the shifting currents in Presidential politics in recent years have dramatically shaped the current Court’s composition. (For those interested in a casual but entertaining read about the Court, I particularly commend Toobin’s book.)


Because the Court is called on to decide some of our country’s most difficult and divisive issues, it is hardly surprising that the Court sometimes expresses itself in multiple voices. But even when issues are of paramount importance, a divided court is not inevitable.


I recently stumbled across the excellent biography of Earl Warren by journalist Jim Newton, entitled Justice for All: Earl Warren and the Nation He Made. Newton’s entertaining and readable book convincingly argues that Warren was one of the most important Americans of the 20th Century. Warren’s career prior to ascending to the Court is itself fascinating, and his three terms as California’s governor transformed the state (although I couldn’t help but thinking that the Warren’s terms as governor may also have planted the seeds of many of California’s current financial woes.) Warren could easily have become President in 1948 or even 1952 (he was the Republican vice presidential candidate in 1948), if the Republicans could have overcome their East Coast bias.


Warren’s tenure on the court of course continues to be highly controversial, and there are many who will always carry virtual "Impeach Earl Warren" billboards around in the foremost part of their conscious brain. In many quarters, the Warren Court is a byword for reckless judicial activism. But it is almost impossible to imagine what our country would have been like were it not for the civil rights decisions of the Warren Court.


At the time Eisenhower nominated Warren to the bench, the Court had already heard oral argument on the Brown vs. Board of Education case, involving the racial segregation of Topeka’s public schools. However, under Warren’s predecessor, Fred Vinson, the justices had been unable to reach even a majority opinion on any of the issues presented and the case was put over to the following term for reargument. In the interim, Vinson died from a heart attack, and Warren came onto the bench.


After Warren joined the Court, the case was reargued. Newton shows how under Warren’s leadership and as a result of Warren’s formidable political skills, the Court was able to reach agreement on a single, unanimous opinion, reversing Plessy v. Ferguson and holding that "separate but equal is inherently unequal."


No one ever accused Warren of being the most intellectual justice. But his leadership skills and his ability to unite powerful personalities with strongly divergent views proved to be indispensible. Warren’s incomparable abilities allowed the Court to speak with a united, single voice. The moral authority this unanimity gave the Court finally allowed the country to move purposefully to try to start removing the shameful legacies of legalized racial segregation.


It all too easy to forget now, but it was only ten short years from the Supreme Court’s opinion in Brown v. Board of Education to Congress’s enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Can you imagine what this country would have been like if the Court had not spoken forcefully and with a unified voice during the civil rights era? I grew up in Virginia in the 60’s and I can still remember the "Coloreds Only" counter at the soda fountain inside the local drug store. How long would absolutely appalling conditions like that have continued if the Court had dithered?


The Warren Court was of course not always unanimous and many of its legacies remain highly controversial. But at its finest, the Warren Court showed how powerful the Court can be when it is strong and united.


For some time and for many reasons, the Supreme Court has been much more prone to speaking with multiple, deeply disparate voices. 5-4 opinions that overturn recent cases (which include opinions both by the Court’s liberal wing and its conservative wing) risk undermining the authority with which the court speaks, because voting majorities can shift so easily. If such slight variations are sufficient for the Court to cast aside even its most recent decisions, then its work becomes of little more enduring value than yesterday’s newspapers. The Court’s haphazard demolition of its own precedents not only begets inconsistency and unpredictability but it risks breeding a disrespect of the authority of the law.


It may be that the Court’s divisions are simply are reflection of divisions within our country, and of the way those divisions have driven the outcomes of Presidential elections in recent years. But I wonder if part of the problem might not be the kind of person that all recent Presidents have preferred for the Court. Because of certain explicit and implicit litmus tests, recent Presidents have overwhelmingly preferred to nominate to the court only judges with long judicial track records, on the theory that the judicial record provides some reassurance of the nominee’s ideology.


I wonder if the Court might shed some of its venomous division if there were more justices nominated whose qualifying experience was not limited to service in the judiciary. After all, the circuit courts are more than just a farm team for the highest bench, and the Supreme Court would benefit from the judgment of men and women whose world views reflected more than what can be gleaned on the inside of an appellate courtroom. I wonder whether a President would have the courage to nominate persons of intelligence and integrity whose experience includes more than just prior judicial service and who would bring with them more than mere ideological reliability.


In any event, it is worth remembering that the Supreme Court is not inevitably divided. Perhaps the most important legacy of the Warren Court is the reminder that at a critical moment in the country’s history, the Court was united. For those of us of moderate views who recoil instinctively from ideological extremism, the Court’s inability to command greater moral authority by speaking with a more consistent, more unified voice, and in particular its willingness to exploit a fragile majority to run roughshod over its own recent decisions, is deeply distressing.