Though she is gone, the Anna Nicole Smith saga continues Tuesday when the Supreme Court hears oral arguments in Stern v. Marshall.
The case centers around Smith’s challenge to her deceased husband’s will. This is the second time the 16 year-old case has gone to the Supreme Court, but this time it could finally be laid to rest.
At stake is the jurisdiction of bankruptcy courts, the interpretation of estate law, and most importantly, how much say you really have in doling out your assets upon your death. According to Smith and her lawyers, the answer to that is “none.”
When Smith’s very wealthy, octogenarian husband J. Howard Marshall II died in 1995 after a 14-month marriage, the stripper-turned PlayMate-turned actress-turned TV personality challenged his estate plan in a Texas probate court with the claim that he had verbally promised her half of his wealth. Though there was no proof of the promise, her attorneys argued that the alleged promise should trump anything Marshall had written in his legally-binding will.
The Texas court took months to hear the case. So in the meantime, with a court judgement in an unrelated matter against her she couldn’t afford to pay, Smith took her plea to a California bankruptcy court, claiming that Marshall’s son Pierce interfered with the inheritance that she was promised. The California court ruled in favor of Smith and awarded her $475 million. The Texas court, however, not only upheld Marshall’s will, but decided he did not intend to give Smith anything beyond the gifts he gave her while he was still alive.
The question then became which court decision trumped the other. While Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the California court “exceeded its statutory grant of power and constitutional limitations,” the Supreme Court will ultimately decide the matter.
“It’s definitely a wait-and-see case,” said Robert Alt, senior legal fellow and deputy director of the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation. “It’s a tough case. And it’s a complicated one. The court is going to be looking at sticky questions about statutory interpretation and what bankruptcy courts can hear.”
According to Alt, if the Ninth Circuit’s decision is overturned, it will “open the floodgates” for forum-shopping (looking around for courts with friendly judges), which is exactly what Smith did. The only problem with that, Alt told The Daily Caller, is that bankruptcy courts have a very narrow jurisdiction and the California court never should have issued a ruling in the first place.
That’s the real kicker of the case: it all comes down to timing. Because bankruptcy judges cannot rule on cases that are not “core” to bankruptcy issues, it needs to be reviewed by a federal judge. Before that could happen in this case, however, the Texas probate court issued its ruling.
At this point, it’s hard to predict what the Supreme Court will decide. If it rules in favor of the Marshall family, then the case is essentially over and Anna Nicole Smith’s estate, which mainly includes her four-year-old daughter Dannielynn and former attorney-turned-boyfriend Howard Stern, gets nothing. Stern, incidentally enough, was just exonerated for drug conspiracy charges after Smith’s 2007 death resulting from a drug overdose.
Todd Zywicki, a constitutional law professor at George Mason University, told TheDC that he hopes the Supreme Court will not only uphold the Ninth Circuit, but will go farther in “laying out limits of ability of people to re-litigate cases because they don’t like the result they’re going to get.”
“The Ninth Circuit Court said that this was not a core issue in Smith’s bankruptcy case,” said Zywicki. “There was no reason for the bankruptcy judge [in California] to do what he did.”
“Besides, they are arguing on the basis of pillow talk,” said Alt, referring to the promise Smith alleged Marshall made to her.
Alt also pointed out that there is much more than the salaciousness of the one-time celebrity-charged court battle that should make Americans take note. “Estate feuds tear families apart,” Alt said. “If you have this kind of situation you’re obviously going to have people taking advantage of it because interests are so high and emotions are hot.”