01 May 2006

Marshall v. Marshall

May Day, today, is historically a celebration of the fertility of spring. Perhaps it is fitting then, that today, as predicted after oral arguments, the U.S. Supreme Court has given porn star and trophy widow Anna Nicole Smith a big sloppy kiss, restoring to her a shot at the $44 million judgment awarded to her by a bankruptcy court in connection with the death of her late (and much older) husband.

The Texas Probate Court had shut her out of any relief in connection with the death of her late husband, as his will was held valid and left her nothing (she did get some hefty gifts, prior to his death, but they were chicken feed compared to what she sought). Proceedings then shifted to the fedeal bankrupcy courts. The bankruptcy court had found that her stepson had improperly interferred with her late husband's efforts to make substantial gifts to her, but when the case reached the 9th Circuit Court of Appeal, her award was vacated on the ground that it concerned a probate matter, from which the federal courts have historically abstained. The U.S. Supreme Court, in overruling the 9th Circuit, held today that both the probate exception to federal court jurisdiction and the domestic relations exception, both of which were created by judicial decision, should be narrowly construed. (In line with another recent decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in a Colorado redistricting case, narrowly construing the judicially created Rooker-Feldman doctrine limitation on federal court jurisdiction).

Anna Nicole Smith's case is not entirely over, however. Two issues remain outstanding on remand to the 9th Circuit. First, the 9th Circuit must determine if this was a "core" proceeding, in which case and even more generous bankruptcy court ruling prevails, rather than a slightly more restrained District Court ruling. Second, the 9th Circuit must decide on remand whether the trial court improperly ignored findings on particuluar issues made in the Texas probate court which should bind the parties in the bankruptcy court. This has the potential to wipe out the award entirely.

So, we haven't yet heard to last episode of the tale of Anna and the Courts.

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