WASHINGTON — Debt-laden Puerto Rico went toe to toe with its creditors at the Supreme Court on Tuesday, arguing that it has been wrongly locked out of the bankruptcy courts, the only place it can reasonably expect to restructure its crushing debt.
“We’ve talked a lot about legal principles,” said the lawyer Christopher Landau, summing up his arguments on behalf of the commonwealth. “But this is also a flesh-and-blood situation in Puerto Rico.”
Hanging on the outcome, he said, were questions like “whether people in a village in Puerto Rico will be able to get clean water.”
Puerto Rico is struggling with $72 billion in debt and has been saying for more than a year that it needs to restructure at least some of it under Chapter 9, the part of the bankruptcy code for insolvent local governments. But Puerto Rico cannot do so, because Chapter 9 specifically excludes it, although it is unclear why.
In 2014, the island tried to get around that exclusion by enacting its own version of a bankruptcy law, designed for its big public utilities, which account for about $26 billion of the total debt. But that attempt ran afoul of yet another provision of the code, which says that only Congress can enact bankruptcy laws.