A woman who filed for bankruptcy doesn’t have to sell a first-edition Book of Mormon to help pay her debts, a federal appeals court held Thursday.
The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the argument that an Illinois law exempting bibles from the reach of creditors does not cover valuable volumes when the debtor has other copies of the same bible.
Under 735 ILCS 5/12-1001(a), “[t]he necessary wearing apparel, bible, school books and family pictures of the debtor and the debtor’s dependants” are exempt from judgment or attachment.
The word “bible” means any religious text.
Writing for a three-member panel of the 7th Circuit, Judge Kenneth F. Ripple said nothing in Subsection (a) “imposes a dollar limit on the items listed.”
Debtor Anna F. Robinson “is simply asking the court to apply the plain wording of the statute,” Ripple wrote.
It is the trustee of Robinson’s bankruptcy estate, he continued, “that is asking us to read a restriction — a dollar-value limitation — into the statute where one does not appear.”
The panel affirmed a ruling by U.S. District Judge Staci M. Yandle of the Southern District of Illinois that Illinois law exempts Robinson’s Book of Mormon.
Robinson was allowed to keep the 1830 volume in exchange for cleaning out the library storage room where she found it.
Marcus H. Herbert of Bankruptcy Advocates LLP in Carbondale argued the case before the 7th Circuit on behalf of Robinson.
Herbert said he’s pleased the court rejected the trustee’s interpretation of the statute as exempting only bibles of negligible value.
“She wanted to read those extra words into the statute that weren’t there,” Herbert said.
If the court had adopted that interpretation, he said, the same argument could be made with regard to clothing.
Noting courts have interpreted the word “clothing” to include jewelry, he said it would be “devastating” to debtors if they were forced to sell valuable wedding rings.
The ruling shows the 7th Circuit recognizes “the role of fixing a statute belongs to the legislature, not to the court,” he said.
Trustee Cynthia A. Hagan of Hendricks & Hagan in Carbondale, who argued the case herself, could not be reached for comment.
In a brief filed with the 7th Circuit, Hagan contended the Illinois General Assembly enacted the bible exemption “to allow a debtor to retain a bible of ordinary value so that the debtor would not be deprived of a worship aid.”
That purpose would not be fulfilled by allowing Robinson to keep a collector’s edition of the Book of Mormon after filing for liquidation of her debts under Chapter 7 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, Hagan contended.
Robinson was given the book in 2003 while she was employed at the Stinson Memorial Library in Anna in Union County. The library is part of the Stinson Memorial Public Library District.
Hagan wrote Robinson has 14 copies of the Book of Mormon in addition to the volume she obtained from the library.
That volume, one of only 5,000 copies printed by Joseph Smith, was valued at $10,000 at the time Robinson found it, Hagan wrote.
Robinson keeps the book in a plastic bag to preserve it, she wrote, and does not use it regularly.
Hagan argued U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Laura K. Grandy of the Southern District of Illinois got it right when she disallowed the exemption Robinson sought for the 1830 Book of Mormon.
The 7th Circuit panel, however, rejected that argument.
When interpreting a statute, “a court looks first to the statutory language itself,” the panel wrote, quoting In re Marriage of Logston, 469 N.E.2d 167 (Ill. 1984).
The language of Subsection (a), it wrote, does not include the words “of negligible monetary value” or anything similar.
Robinson’s request for an exemption also is supported by the wording of other subsections listing other items that are exempt from judgment, the panel wrote.
Those subsections, it wrote, list limits on the monetary value of the personal property — for example, a car or tools needed for work — that may be exempted.
Joining the opinion were Chief Judge Diane P. Wood and Judge Frank H. Easterbrook. In re Anna F. Robinson; Appeal of Cynthia A. Hagan, No. 14-3585.