Texas bank regulators and an Arkansas bank will go head to head today in the first legal showdown since national banks began using a controversial rule to cross state lines last year.
The state is trying to shut down the new Texarkana, Tex., office of Commercial National Bank, which moved across the state line from Texarkana, Ark., last week.
Commercial National, a $92 million-asset bank, won approval from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency on March 8 to move its headquarters from Arkansas to Texas, keeping its Arkansas offices as branches. The bank did this under a provision of the National Bank Act that lets banks move their headquarters up to 30 miles.
The 30-mile rule has been on the books in its current form since the 1970s, but was used only intermittently until 1994. Early that year, the Comptroller's office began encouraging national banks to take advantage of it to streamline operations and move into new markets.
Since then, the Comptroller's office has approved 32 such applications - 30 to cross state lines and two to cross county lines in states that ban intercounty branching. Thirteen more 30-mile requests are pending.
In seven instances, banks have switched from state to national charters in order to make their moves under the 30-mile rule. While some state bank regulators protested, none had taken legal action until last Friday, when the Texas Department of Banking sued Commercial National for its move into Texas.
In today's state district court hearing, lawyers for the state will argue for a temporary injunction stopping Commercial National from doing business from the Texas office.
Texas Banking Commissioner Catherine A. Ghiglieri said her department sued the bank, and not the Comptroller's office, because "the bank moved - the bank violated the law, as far as we're concerned."
Texas law bans interstate branching, and the state's legislature voted earlier this year to become the first - and so far only - state to opt out of the branching law passed by Congress last year. "I am responsible for upholding the law," Ms. Ghiglieri said.
"They're putting up the good fight, because they're Texans," said Washington attorney David Roderer, a partner in the firm of Winston & Strawn. "I don't think they expect to win."
The legal battle could slow Commercial National's move, however, and the slowdown might prove crucial. The Riegle-Neal Interstate Banking and Branching Efficiency Act of 1994 officially puts the 30-mile rule out of business as of July 1, 1997 - and in Texas, at least, branching across state lines will be clearly out of bounds after that date.
"You do it now, you jump the line," Mr. Roderer said. "You wait till after, the door's closed."
Ms. Ghiglieri, who spent 18 years with the Comptroller's office before moving into her current job three years ago, said she welcomes banks entering Texas. But, she added, "we would like to have them come in in a lawful manner" - which means by buying a Texas bank that has been in business for at least five years.