Earlier today (Monday, May 1, 2006) the AP reported here that Anna Nicole Smith scored a big win before the U.S. Supreme Court, which by a unanimous vote reversed the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Ms. Smith’s favor (for more background on this case, see my prior blog post here). Here is an excerpt from today’s AP story:
WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court ruled Monday that one-time stripper and Playboy Playmate Anna Nicole Smith could pursue part of her late husband’s oil fortune. Justices gave new legal life to Smith’s bid to collect millions of dollars from the estate of J. Howard Marshall II. Her late husband’s estate has been estimated at as much as $1.6 billion. Smith has been embroiled in a long running cross-country court fight with Marshall’s youngest son, E. Pierce Marshall. The court’s decision, which was unanimous, means that it will not end anytime soon.
The legal issues at play in this case, Marshall v. Marshall, are summed up nicely in the following excerpts from the Supreme Court’s opinion:
In Cohens v. Virginia, Chief Justice Marshall famously cautioned: “It is most true that this Court will not take jurisdiction if it should not: but it is equally true, that it must take jurisdiction, if it should . . . . We have no more right to decline the exercise of jurisdiction which is given,than to usurp that which is not given.” 6 Wheat. 264, 404 (1821). Among longstanding limitations on federal jurisdiction otherwise properly exercised are the so-called “domestic relations” and “probate” exceptions. Neither is compelled by the text of the Constitution or federal statute. Both are judicially created doctrines stemming in large measure from misty understandings of English legal history. * * * In the years following Marshall’s 1821 pronouncement, courts have sometimes lost sight of his admonition and have rendered decisions expansively interpreting the two exceptions. In Ankenbrandt v. Richards, 504 U. S. 689 (1992), this Court reined in the “domestic relations exception.” Earlier, in Markham v. Allen, 326 U. S. 490 (1946), the Court endeavored similarly to curtail the “probate exception.” Nevertheless, the Ninth Circuit in the instant case read the probate exception broadly to exclude from the federal courts’ adjudicatory authority “not only direct challenges to a will or trust, but also questions which would ordinarily be decided by a probate court in determining the validity of the decedent’s estate planning instrument.” * * * The Court of Appeals further held that a State’s vesting of exclusive jurisdiction over probate matters in a special court strips federal courts of jurisdiction to entertain any “probate related matter,”including claims respecting “tax liability, debt, gift, [or] tort.” Id., at 1136. We hold that the Ninth Circuit had no warrant from Congress, or from decisions of this Court, for its sweeping extension of the probate exception. (Emphasis added.)