Former Playboy Playmate, model, aspiring actress and professional celebrity Anna Nicole Smith probably wanted to be remembered for a lot of things, but her most lasting impact may have been in the court room.
In a 2006 win at the US Supreme Court, Anna Nicole Smith’s battle over her late husband’s $1.6 billion estate redefined the "probate exception" to federal court jurisdiction over trusts-and-estates related litigation [see here, here], in a way that is likely to result in a greater number of such cases being litigated in federal court [see here, here].
In 2007 Anna Nicole Smith died in Florida triggering litigation over where she would be buried [see here, here, here]. Not surprisingly, this case had a major impact on Florida law governing burial disputes and, I am told, is likely to result in legislation specifically designed to govern all such future disputes in Florida. This type of statue would be a first for Florida.
Now, in 2011, Anna Nicole Smith’s estate battle has resulted in a significant Supreme Court decision redefining the power of federal bankruptcy judges. In Stern v. Marshall, — S.Ct. —-, 2011 WL 2472792 (U.S. Jun 23, 2011), the Supreme Court ruled that a bankruptcy judge, who awarded Smith $475 million in 2000, did not have the constitutional right to try a probate case. Because the battle over oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall II’s wealth outlived most of the parties to the suits, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. compared it to "Bleak House," Charles Dickens’ novel about a lawsuit that never ends.
This “suit has, in course of time, become so complicated, that … no two … lawyers can talk about it for five minutes, without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises. Innumerable children have been born into the cause: innumerable young people have married into it;” and, sadly, the original parties “have died out of it.” A “long procession of [judges] has come in and gone out” during that time, and still the suit “drags its weary length before the Court.”
Those words were not written about this case, see C. Dickens, Bleak House, in 1 Works of Charles Dickens 4–5 (1891), but they could have been.
After Smith’s death in 2007, Howard K. Stern, her former domestic partner, had carried on the case as executor of her estate. The estate’s sole beneficiary is Smith’s daughter, Dannielynn Birkhead, who will be 5 in September. The Supreme Court’s ruling effectively ends any claim Smith’s estate may have had to her late husband’s vast estate.
Here’s an excerpt from an AP piece entitled Court rules against Anna Nicole Smith’s estate in battle for deceased oil tycoon’s estate that does a good job of putting the Supreme Court’s ruling in context:
The family of E. Pierce Marshall, son of J. Howard Marshall, cheered the decision.
“J. Howard’s wishes were always perfectly clear: He gave Anna Nicole Smith approximately $8 million in gifts during his lifetime, and those gifts were all that he intended to give her,” said Eric Brunstad, the Marshalls’ lawyer.
The convoluted dispute over the elder Marshall’s money has its roots in a Houston strip club where he met Smith. The two were wed in 1994 when he was 89 and she 26. Marshall died the next year and his will left his estate to his son and nothing to Smith.
Smith challenged the will, claiming that her husband promised to leave her more than $300 million above the cash and gifts showered on her during their 14-month marriage. A Houston jury said Marshall was mentally fit and under no undue pressure when he wrote a will leaving nearly all of his $1.6 billion estate to his son and nothing to Smith, a decision that has been upheld by the federal appeals court.
Smith moved to California after Marshall’s death and then filed bankruptcy in Los Angeles, alleging in federal court filings that her husband promised her a large share of the estate. A bankruptcy judge awarded her $475 million from Marshall’s estate, with a federal judge reducing that amount to $89 million in 2002.
Smith had wanted the courts to accept that ruling. But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in in San Francisco appeals court threw the bankruptcy court ruling out, saying a bankruptcy judge could not rule on the probate case [see here].
Roberts agreed with that decision, and was joined in his judgment by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.