Four years ago, reality TV star Anna Nicole Smith passed away, yet her legacy lives on. With a racy Royal Opera musical called “Anna Nicole” set to open in a few weeks and the Supreme Court decision in her estate case lingering, this former Playboy continues to flood the media.
On January 18th, the Supreme Court Justices were subject to round two of oral arguments regarding the estate case Stern v. Marshall. The Court must now determine the jurisdiction of specialty bankruptcy courts – either officially limiting their power or drastically expanding it. The last time the High Court heard arguments in the case, instead of making a ruling, it was sent back down to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals – who in turn upheld the original Texas probate court ruling in favor of Marshall.
It all started over 15 years ago when Smith married businessman J. Howard Marshall II in 1995. The brief 14 month marriage consisted of generous gifts – around $7 million in fact – in cash, jewelry, cars, furs, and other gifts from Marshall to Smith. This, however, was not enough for the former stripper and Playboy model. Smith argued that Marshall verbally promised her half of his estate, yet she had no evidence to back up this claim. As a lawyer himself, Marshall made it clear in his will that all his assets go to his son, E. Pierce Marshall.
After a 5 ½ month jury trial in the Texas Probate Court, it was established that Smith was not entitled to any portion of the Marshall estate beyond the gifts she already received. The jury also rejected her claim that Pierce Marshall interfered with the creation of the estate plan or distribution of assets. Before the Texas court could rule, however, Smith knew the trial was heading down an unfavorable path. So, she conveniently filed for bankruptcy before the case was decided. This legal effort, called forum shopping, occurs when litigants attempt to get their case heard in a court they believe will provide a favorable judgment.
While a bankruptcy court is allowed to hear and consider cases outside that which is “core” to the bankruptcy filing, they can’t render final ruling on the matter. Lucky for Smith, the bankruptcy court ignored this pesky component of the bankruptcy code and ruled in her favor but this leads us to our current situation. By definition, personal injury torts, like the one Smith filed against Pierce Marshall, are not core to bankruptcy proceedings and further are not even allowed to be heard by bankruptcy judges.
Long story short, Smith’s legal team litigated this case far beyond its legal merits in an effort to convince judge after judge that this point is either untrue or not applicable in their special case. Now, the Supreme Court has the opportunity to end this outrageous legal battle once and for all.
Whether it’s a criminal trial, racy musical or estate case – Smith’s name is nearly as popular with tabloids and gossip sites now as it ever was. With the original parties to the suit, Smith and two members of the Marshall family, now deceased, perhaps it is time to end the drama.