Anna Nicole Smith Wins This Round of Her Case.--

On Monday, Anna Nicole Smith (AKA Vickie Lynn Marshall) won her US Supreme Court appeal of a 9th Circuit decision against her. (For background on the case, see my February post.)

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in her favor. As I had blogged at the time the case was argued, the 9th Circuit's view of the probate exception to federal jurisdiction was so broad that it could not stand.

The majority opinion by Justice Ginsburg does not delineate the scope of any probate exception, but establishes that this case is clearly outside it.

Thus, the probate exception reserves to state probate courts the probate or annulment of a will and the administration of a decedent's estate; it also precludes federal courts from endeavoring to dispose of property that is in the custody of a state probate court. But it does not bar federal courts from adjudicating matters outside those confines and otherwise within federal jurisdiction.


As the Court of Appeals correctly observed, Vickie's claim does not "involve the administration of an estate, the probate of a will, or any other purely probate matter." 392 F. 3d, at 1133. . . .

Furthermore, no "sound policy considerations" militate in favor of extending the probate exception to cover the case at hand. Cf. Ankenbrandt, 504 U. S.,at 703. Trial courts, both federal and state, often address conduct of the kind Vickie alleges. State probate courts possess no "special proficiency … in handling [such] issues." Cf. id., at 704. . . .

At issue here, however, is not the Texas Probate Court's jurisdiction, but the federal courts' jurisdiction to entertain Vickie's tortious interference claim. Under our federal system, Texas cannot render its probate courts exclusively competent to entertain a claim of that genre. We therefore hold that the District Court properly asserted jurisdiction over Vickie's counterclaim against Pierce.


After determining that Vickie's claim was not a "core proceeding," the District Court reviewed the case de novo and entered its final judgment on March 7, 2002. 275 B. R., at 5--8. The Texas Probate Court's judgment became final on February 11, 2002, nearly one month earlier. App. to Pet. for Cert. 41. The Court of Appeals considered only the issue of federal subject-matter jurisdiction. It did not address the question whether Vickie's claim was "core"; nor did it address Pierce's arguments concerning claim and issue preclusion. 392 F. 3d, at 1137. These issues remain open for consideration on remand.

*  *  *

For the reasons stated, the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

So Anna Nicole Smith's 88 million dollar US District Court judgment is back to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals for hearing on appeal, where there are a range of issues yet to be determined.

In his Supreme Court opinion concurring in part and in the result, Justice Stevens argues that the probate exception should be abolished altogether. His opinion ends:

Rather than preserving whatever vitality that the "exception" has retained as a result of the Markham dicta, I would provide the creature with a decent burial in a grave adjacent to the resting place of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. See Lance v. Dennis, 546 U. S. ___, ___ (2006) (Stevens, J., dissenting) (slip op., at 2--3).

UPDATE: I'm seeing and reading some odd commentary on this case. A Florida estate and probate blog says:

The Trust Dispute Lawyers are continuing to continue their fight with the Probate Litigation[.] Attorneys will return to Probate Court.

I just saw Dr. Phil opining on Jay Leno that now Anna Nicole will be able to press her case and that it will go to a jury.

I confess that, though estates and trusts is one of my fields, federal jurisdiction is not. But as I read the case, Anna Nicole already has a large judgment in her favor, and Pierce Marshall has an appeal to the 9th Circuit, an appeal that raises many issues that the 9th Circuit needs to decide. While the 9th Circuit could send the case back to the District Court for rehearing, it could also affirm (or overturn) the decision in Anna's favor, without any new trial.

Thus, contrary to the Florida probate blogger, I don't think that there is any "probate court" to "return" to. And, contrary to Dr. Phil's opinion, a jury trial may not be in Anna's future, since she has already had two trials on the merits, and the triers of fact in her case so far have been first a bankruptcy judge, and then (de novo) a federal district court judge.

Mike BUSL07 (mail) (www):
For once, I'm with Stevens. The probate exception should go the way of the frankalmoign and defending with the body.

Also, I like this line from Ginsburg -the probate exception comes from "misty understandings of English legal history." True that, Ruth, True that.

Oh, and if I seem particularly jovial today, (not that anyone is paying attention to my merriment), it's because I'm now officially a 3L. w00t.
5.2.2006 1:28am
If there's anything the federal courts guard zealously its their jurisdiction.
5.2.2006 1:29am
breen (mail):
In light of the quite necessary picture in this post, I suggest future posts on such important legal issues as the following:
Jessica Simpson's divorce
Naomi Campbell's assault
Kate Moss' drug use
Pamela Anderson's. . . umm. . . Pamela Anderson's. . . hepatitis?????
5.2.2006 1:36am
GW 3L:

Oh, and if I seem particularly jovial today, (not that anyone is paying attention to my merriment), it's because I'm now officially a 3L. w00t.

Don't jump the gun. After all, you might have failed those exams.
5.2.2006 1:50am
Mike BUSL07 (mail) (www):
GW 3L:

"Don't jump the gun. After all, you might have failed those exams."

Care to make it interesting?
5.2.2006 1:53am
Cornellian (mail):
The photo certainly stands out, so to speak.
5.2.2006 2:16am
Dr. Phil and Anna Nicole in one post. The apocalypse is near.
5.2.2006 7:36am
That seems like an odd question to put to Dr. Phil.
5.2.2006 9:11am
Yes, Jim, I believe you are correct. The case goes back to the 9th and there are a number of issues there (including, iirc, an issue re sanctions from the lower court, as well as the preclusion issues). There are also more mundane issues (but everyday real life appeals issues) regarding if Texas law even provides a the claim the lower court found.
5.2.2006 9:39am
Oh, and a narrow opinion here. It seems to me that the really broad issue of if the Bankruptcy code even allows for a probate exception (an issue realied on heavily for cert) was ignored. This is an interesting question, as the original probate exception cases (iirc) deal with the particular language of the 1789 Act, while the bankruptcy code rests on a different pillar of jurisdiction. This was not a diversity case, but the Court seems to ignore that logical distinction to reach a much more narrow ruling.
5.2.2006 9:43am
CJColucci (mail):
It's frustrating because I just know there's a joke here, but I can't think of it. The best a colleague could come up with was something about "jurisdiction stripping."
5.2.2006 12:35pm
One thing I find interesting is that the decision was unanimous. Someone noted that the holding was quite narrow. I also note that the other two decisions issued yesterday were unanimous, as well. It seems that the Chief is having some success in building concensus. I have not paid close attention to the decisions issued since his ascension, but this seems a trend. Why is it happening? Is Roberts able to build agreement by limiting the scope of issues decided? Or is it a fluke, based on the type of issues presented?
5.2.2006 1:19pm
CJColucci (mail):
Sample size is everything. Very little reason for the unanimous decisions to be anything other than unanimous. The Court turns out a lot of them every year. We tend to notice the contentious stuff and ignore the rest.
5.2.2006 1:49pm
Cornellian (mail):
I just saw Dr. Phil opining on Jay Leno that now Anna Nicole will be able to press her case and that it will go to a jury.

I'm looking forward to his upcoming treatise "Dr. Phil on Federal Jurisdiction."
5.2.2006 2:00pm
Robert King (mail):
Jim, I am continuously amazed at Dr. Phils self-aggrandizement. The only problem I had with the 9th's opinion was the tax issue that you pointed out. Amazing what one word in an opinion can spur. Of course, it seems the Justices clearly wanted to reign in the exception from its current application, as they did in Akenbrandt. Ginsberg did actually define the boundries of the exception to "core" probate matters. It would seem to me that their recognition of the exception to bankruptcy would indicate it does apply to federal questions as well.

The case will go back to the 9th as the stay is likely still in effect. As you noted, there are many issues to be resolved. By my count, Anna has actually had three trials on the merits and three triers of fact (TX Probate, Bankruptcy, Fed District Ct.). It would be surprising if the 9th remanded the case for rehearing. To your point as well, the TX probate is closed, so there is no probate to return to.
5.2.2006 5:55pm
James Lindgren (mail):

I think Anna bowed out of the Texas case, withdrawing her claims against the estate.
5.2.2006 8:22pm
MassRepUnsure (mail):
I have a question regarding the son's legal decisions, which may have already been discussed. Why did the son bring a claim against Anna Nicole Smith's estate in bankruptcy? This claim allowed her to bring the counterclaim against the son that led to the jurisdictional question. As I understand the facts, if the son did not file a claim in the bankruptcy case, Smith would not have had a federal claim against the son.
5.2.2006 8:52pm
Robert King (mail):

She took a non-suit after having put on her case in chief and cross examined all of the opposing side's witnesses in front of the jury. Besides that, she remained in the case as a counter-defendent and was hit with both a declaratory and money judgement. Her case was fully tried. If you read the probate judgement, it seems clear to me.


As I understand it, Pierce filed a determination of non-dischargeability in Bankruptcy. This seems to be a point of a lot of controversy and Justice Ginsberg did not know this was even possible at oral arguments. The problem is, whether he filed aproof of claim or not, the bankruptcy judge treated it that way. That is all that was needed to create the ensuing mess.
5.2.2006 9:17pm
smjohnson (mail):
Anna Nicole Smith continues to fight for her share and control of her late husband's will and testamentas it's back into court in the 9th circuit court again. She alleges that Pierce Marshall,(son)was always trying to prevent her from seeing her husband and that could meant trying to persuade and influence a decision of leaving her out of the will. The son ended up becoming the benficiary in the will and trust and she assumed she would fall into the " catch-all" part of the trust part of the will. She then fought in the bankruptcy court and was awarded $44 millions by the Federal District Court, which was later overturned. Did Pierce try to force his father to change a will in his favor? Or did he later change it due to his father's declining health? Another case that sounds familiar to this one is the Moser v. Pollin 2nd circuit. Isidore Sisko gave all his estate and assets to his sister instead of his daughter, his only child(Mosers). Mosers felt the will was forgery and the defendents engaged in fraud. The will in the amount of 900,000 was last dated two days before Isidore Sisko's death.
Does this all sound weird to how the will can be changed many times, why should it be changed, and should all accounts or drafts be considered when the matter is in court?
5.3.2006 12:39am
Robert King (mail):

There were 9 wills and 7 trust agreements in front of the Texas probate court going back to circa 1983. Interestingly, from 1983 forward, they all said basically the same thing; all the property goes into the trust and the trust goes to Pierce Marshall. Wanna guess how old Anna Nicole was in 1983?

What catch-all part of the trust are you talking about? Are you talkinig about the pourover provision in the will? I am not sure why Anna would think she would fall under that. So, to your points, no it is not wierd for a testator to change their estate documents over the years and previous versions were considered (though they generally are not).
5.3.2006 4:21pm
smjohnson (mail):
In 1983, yes Anna Nicole Smith was 23 so technically she was an adult. She is now a 39 year old woman who is now fighting for her rights in court for the will that she feels she is entitled to. Yes, the catch-all part of the will is what Anna was hoping to fall into when she felt that Howard Marshall II did not intentionally leave her out of the will. She states that he promised her half of his fortune to speed up the marriage when she was a stripper in Texas. The catch-all provision is more like the pour-over as when an asset is overlooked and not included in a trust. The pour over will catch loose assets and pour them in a trust for distribution, which will be the subject of probate later on. Does anyone think Howard was sane or rational enough to write his last will and intentionally kept his wife out and left his assets to his son? If so, doesn't his wife get a fair share at all if she was telling the truth about Howard leaving his half of his moeny to her?
5.3.2006 7:14pm
Robert King (mail):

I think you need to check your math. Anna was born in 1967. In 1983, she was 16. Maybe where you are from that qulalifies as an adult but not in anywhere in the US that I am aware of. At any rate, they were not married for another 11 years (i.e. the trust was there long before Anna).

I am not sure how she was going to "fall into" the pour-over provision. First, she didn't know about it until after he died. Second, it specifically stated that any remaining assets were "poured-over" to his living trust. There was no pour-over provision which named a trust for her benefit.

The capacity issue is very interesting but problematic. If he was not competent to alter his living trust, then he was certainly not competent to marry or enter a contract to marry. I think he was competent to enough to do both. I realize that she says he promised her half but the jury in TX did not buy it.
5.3.2006 8:08pm
smjohnson (mail):
I'm sorry I got the wrong date of her birthday, whoops!!
5.3.2006 8:13pm