BENTON – Bankruptcy judge Laura Grandy turned herself around, under direction from Seventh Circuit appellate judges, and exempted a first edition print of the Book of Mormon from forfeiture.
Grandy, who had sustained an objection against an exemption for former debtor Anna Robinson in 2013, overruled the objection on Feb. 8.
She honored a Seventh Circuit opinion of Feb. 4, affirming an order that District Judge Staci Yandle signed in Robinson’s favor in 2014.
Robinson, a former Murphysboro resident now living in Kentucky, might have avoided bankruptcy by selling it.
Murphysboro lawyer Patrick McCann filed her petition in 2013, listing $27,472 in personal property and no other assets.
McCann listed a secured debt of $27,122 on a Honda Odyssey, and unsecured credit card debts of $23,834.
He included the Book of Mormon among her property, with value unknown, and he claimed an exemption for it.
Illinois law allows exemptions for necessary items such as clothes, personal photographs, and bibles.
Trustee Cynthia Hagan of Carbondale objected to an exemption, quoting testimony from Robinson that the bible might be worth $20,000.
Hagan wrote that her own research showed it might be worth as much as $50,000.
She wrote that equity in it should be preserved for the benefit of creditors. She noted that Robinson owned 11 copies of the Book of Mormon.
“It’s not necessary to have the 20 thousand dollar bible for your daily devotions when you’ve got 11 other copies,” Hagan said at a hearing.
“The debtor is entitled to exempt one bible. The question of course becomes, do you get to choose the valuable bible?”
Rounding upward its age of 183 years, she said, “I would imagine at 200 years old it would be far too fragile to use for daily devotions.”
McCann said that Robinson had digital copies of the Book of Mormon on her iPad and iPhone for daily devotions.
“She does look at it,” McCann said. “She does read it. It’s part of her faith.”
Grandy, a former trustee, said, “Wouldn’t the Gutenberg bible have value, if you had one of those original Gutenberg copies, over just a current print of the King James?”
Hagan answered before McCann could, saying Clarence Thomas had a bible that Frederick Douglass owned, worth about $15,000.
McCann called Robinson to the stand and asked how long she belonged to the Latter Day Saints.
“I was raised in the church,” she said. “I was baptized a member when I was eight years old.”
Under McCann’s question, Robinson, who would soon turn 32, said she worked at Stinson Memorial Library in Anna. She said she discovered the bible after cleaning out a room at the library that was full of old books, most of which were severely damaged.
“She (library director) told me any books that were in there that I wanted to keep, that I could, because we were going to get rid of them all,” Robinson said.
Two books at the bottom of a stack were wrapped in 1960s newspaper, she said, and the top book disintegrated in her hand.
“The second book on the very bottom that was wrapped in the newspaper was this Book of Mormon,” she said.
“This book is very important to me, the scripture anyway. I believe this book to be a true account.”
She said its title page was missing, so she took it to Independence, Mo., and someone authenticated that it was 1830.
McCann asked when she found it, and she said 2003.
He asked why she didn’t sell it then, and she said, “I couldn’t imagine selling it.”
She said she and her husband at the time argued about it.
“I felt that I had found this,” she said. “It wasn’t – I didn’t feel it was right to make a profit off of it.
“There are only 5,000 copies printed, and there was a lot of sacrifice that went into the printing of this by the early members of the church.
“Our profit Joseph Smith was martyred in Carthage jail in Illinois along with his brother. We were run out of the state of Illinois.”
She said she brought the bible to lessons and classes she taught.
Grandy asked her how she kept it, and she said she had it in a ziplock bag.
Grandy asked if the library knew its value, and she said the board and the director didn’t see a huge profit being made.
When her divorce happened, in 2010, her husband wanted to sell it, Robinson said.
She said her director and the board wrote a letter that they had given it to her.
After the hearing, Hagan filed a brief arguing that the bible would provide a meaningful distribution to creditors.
“The valuable 1830 first edition Book of Mormon at issue is not necessary to protect the debtor and her family in their subsistence when any of these other bibles are adequate for use in their daily devotions,” Hagan wrote.
She wrote that copies with more damage have brought $30,000 to $45,000.
Grandy sustained Hagan’s objection, finding no reason to favor an exemption for the valuable bible over a copy of ordinary value.
She wrote that the exemption statute protects bare necessities, so as not to leave a debtor penniless and a public charge.
Robinson appealed to district court, but turned the book over to Hagan.
Marcus Herbert of Carbondale entered the case for Robinson and challenged Hagan’s argument that a judge may exempt only necessary items.
Herbert wrote that this approach “requires a court to judge the necessity of things that cannot be measured against any determinable standard.”
“Who is to say what family pictures are necessary? Clearly, they are not needed for physical sustenance,” Herbert wrote.
“We do not eat them. They do not keep us warm during a winter storm.”
He wrote that only God and the person using a bible could measure its necessity.
In reply, Hagan argued that the court determines which pictures are necessary.
Yandle found that the legislature placed dollar limits on some exemptions but not on exemptions for bibles.
“This makes it clear to the court that the legislature placed value on exemptions when it intended to do so,” Yandle wrote.
“The court believes a reading of the plain language indicates that the bible is exempt without regard to its value.”
She wrote that the statute did not require her to analyze necessity.
“Of course a bible is not necessary to the extent that one needs it for sustenance. It can only be necessary for spiritual reasons,” Yandle wrote.
“The court doubts it is in a position to determine the spiritual necessity of any book.”
She wrote that Robinson held on to this valuable bible for more than 10 years.
“Considering her income and financial situation, it is clear that she needed money,” Yandle wrote.
“However, she refrained from selling the bible because of its non monetary value.”
Hagan appealed to the Seventh Circuit, where Robinson prevailed.
Seventh Circuit chief judge Diane Wood wrote that the statute supported Hagan’s argument that the exemption applied to one bible.
“However, the trustee does not seek simply to limit Ms. Robinson to one Book of Mormon; the trustee seeks to limit Ms. Robinson to one Book of Mormon of negligible monetary value,” she wrote.
She repeated Yandle’s point that the legislature limited value on some exemptions but not on bibles.
Circuit judges Frank Easterbrook and Kenneth Ripple concurred.