From Cockpit to Courthouse—Bankruptcy Judge A. Jay Cristol

Understand the complexities and nuances of the Bankruptcy Code to better advise clients and prepare for court.

By Daniel Gill

The life and career of A. Jay Cristol has been full of ups and downs, but that’s not surprising for a pilot with seven decades of flying experience.

In fact, to speak with Judge Cristol of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Florida, it’s clear there were a lot more ups than downs.

He’s not only been a Navy aviator and a jurist, but he’s also a scholar, teacher and philanthropist.

Cristol is currently in his third 14-year term as a bankruptcy judge, and at 87, he says he has no interest in slowing down. Besides running a full caseload, he also teaches bankruptcy at the University of Miami Law School, where he has taught for 26 years.

Chief Bankruptcy Judge Michael G. Williamson of the Middle District of Florida praised Cristol both as a colleague and from the perspective of a lawyer appearing before him.

“Jay Cristol has all the qualities that one would hope for in judge. He has a wealth of knowledge of bankruptcy law gained over decades of service as a judge, a keen sense of justice, and a self-effacing manner. When I was a lawyer it was always a pleasure to appear before him,” Williamson told Bloomberg BNA in a March 30 email.

“He is passionate and compassionate, intelligent and understanding, and above all, fair,” Cheryl Kaplan, Cristol’s law clerk for more than 20 years, told Bloomberg BNA in a March 28 email.

Cristol told Bloomberg BNA about his past and current experiences.

Naval Aviator

He joined the Navy out of high school and earned his wings as an aviator. He served on an aircraft carrier during the Korean conflict and had 86 landings on the vessel, including 19 at night. Those are considerably tougher, he told Bloomberg BNA.

After the war, he served as a flight instructor, including teaching maneuvers for delivering nuclear weapons. As a Navy reservist, he qualified to fly four-engine transports and flew missions during the Cuban missile crisis.

From his military career, Cristol has been awarded more than a dozen decorations. Recently the government of South Korea gave him an award, he said.

Lawyer and Historian

After 18 years as an aviator, Cristol joined the Judge Advocate General’s Corps and served for 20 years as a JAG officer, including teaching law.

Cristol became an expert on military jurisprudence and history and focused his scholarship on the Liberty Incident, an accident involving an attack by Israeli air and naval craft on the USS Liberty during the Six-Day War in June 1967. (The Israelis mistook the Liberty for an Egyptian vessel.) He eventually wrote two books on the subject and earned a doctorate at the University of Miami for his scholarship on the attack.

Landing in Bankruptcy

Cristol practiced law for 25 years as the head of a small firm in Miami, specializing in financial, real estate and probate matters. Once, he represented a mortgage holder whose debtor filed for bankruptcy and was “represented by a big shot bankruptcy attorney,” Cristol said.

After he beat the big shot, Cristol started getting more bankruptcy cases and quickly built a name in the field.

Then he took a call from Judge Joseph Gassen, who was retiring as a bankruptcy judge and suggested that Cristol put in for the job. The Eleventh Circuit appointed him, and he began there in 1985.

“I love the job. It’s such a worthwhile thing to do,” Cristol said.

Miami is one of the busiest bankruptcy courts in the country and has become a magnet for Ponzi scheme cases, he said.

Cristol said that big cases have been particularly challenging and rewarding.

“I’ve had three billion-dollar cases, and all of them fascinating,” he said.

Avid Aviator

Cristol flies whenever he can. Over the years, he has piloted a number of different aircraft, including a Soviet-era MiG and the Goodyear Blimp.

As a bankruptcy judge, Cristol once presided over the Chapter 11 case of the company that purchased the PanAm name. Years after the case closed, he was advised by the company that emerged from that bankruptcy that it had named a Boeing 727-200 the “Clipper A. Jay Cristol,” and allowed him to fly it.

In another aviation case, Cristol presided over Amerijet International’s Chapter 11 proceedings. When the company came into court, he saw that it had a fleet of 10 aircraft, but five were grounded after Amerijet lost a contract with FedEx, he said.

“I told them, ‘I’ll give you two weeks to sell five airplanes or you’ll end up in a liquidation,’” Cristol told Bloomberg BNA. The company sold the aircraft and ultimately emerged from Chapter 11 as a viable company.

Cristol is a huge proponent of Chapter 11, which protects companies (or individuals) from creditors while they seek to reorganize their debt or liquidate pursuant to a plan which must be approved by the bankruptcy court. When compared to the return they might get in a Chapter 7 liquidation, creditors can stand to do much better through a reorganization plan, Cristol said.

International Emissary

Cristol has frequently gone abroad to lend his expertise to foreign nations. For example, he spent significant time working with experts in Thailand, whose insolvency laws were previously created under the British model, with a “debtor-be-damned mentality,” he told Bloomberg BNA.

That country had little idea what to do with reorganizing insolvent companies, and Cristol helped educate Thai legislators on the U.S. Chapter 11 concept. Within a couple years, Thailand had created a bankruptcy court of its own, with laws and a specialized court “similar to ours,” he said.

Besides lending his expertise to foreign nations, Cristol also hosts visiting judges and legislators to help give them a taste of the American bankruptcy system. For example, Cristol has entertained visitors from Russia, the Ukraine, Thailand, Armenia, Tanzania and Malawi.

Philanthropist

Among Cristol’s many charitable contributions, he founded a bankruptcy clinic with law students helping low income debtors. He has supported the University of Miami and is “a huge supporter of the American Red Cross,” his clerk, Kaplan, said.

“I’ve been very, very fortunate,” Cristol told Bloomberg BNA. “My Navy career was wonderful, and I’ve enjoyed my legal career.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Daniel Gill in Washington at dgill@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jay Horowitz at JHorowitz@bna.com

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