|The 15-Year Legal Farce Known as the Anna Nicole Smith Case May Finally Be Nearing Its End|
By Timothy H. Lee
Thursday, July 09 2009
Imagine a baseball game that appears almost over, but then goes into extra innings for almost 15 years. With that image in mind, one can begin to understand the nature of Marshall vs. Marshall, the endless Anna Nicole Smith inheritance litigation, which has become the farcical World Series of legal system abuse.
In what may – hopefully – be its final inning, oral arguments were heard in late June by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Seattle, where the case had been remanded from the United States Supreme Court.
The origins of this case date to 1994, when former Playboy model Anna Nicole Smith, then 26, married Texas oil millionaire J. Howard Marshall, then 89. Fourteen months later, Mr. Marshall died. Although Ms. Smith had received a reported $6 million worth of gifts from Mr. Marshall during their brief marriage, she was not named as a beneficiary in Mr. Marshall’s highly detailed estate planning documents.
Undeterred, Ms. Smith sued, claiming that Mr. Marshall had verbally promised that she would inherit a significant portion of his estate.
A Texas probate court rejected her claim after a six-month trial. But before that 2001 verdict was announced, Ms. Smith’s legal team decided to play a little game of jackpot justice and shifted to a new playing field – federal bankruptcy court in California. This commenced a legal odyssey through the California federal courts, then to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, then to the United States Supreme Court and then back to the Ninth Circuit again.
After Ms. Smith’s death in 2007 from an apparent overdose of prescription drugs, the case was pressed ahead by her lawyer and former companion Howard K. Stern. Putatively on behalf of Ms. Smith’s now almost three-year-old daughter Dannielynn, of course.
The Supreme Court essentially agreed with the substance of the original Texas probate court’s determination and remanded the case to the Ninth Circuit. In so doing, unfortunately, the Supreme Court undermined the important concept of federalism by allowing federal courts to meddle in probate cases that are best left to state judges who better understand applicable state laws. This will have the effect of increasing trial lawyers’ ability to forum-shop and file multiple lawsuits in alternate jurisdictions in pursuit of a result to their liking. Moreover, the Supreme Court’s ruling undermined estate planning and philanthropic giving across the nation by granting federal judges authority over state inheritance matters with which they’re less familiar.
On remand, the Smith team was led by Los Angeles appellate attorney Kent Richland, who had argued Smith’s case before the Supreme Court. Mr. Richland was shelled with questions from the three-judge panel, which concentrated on the question of whether it was the Texas probate court or the California bankruptcy court that first recorded a decision. (Click here to listen to the oral argument)
The evidence before the appellate panel indicated overwhelmingly that the Texas probate decision is indeed the decision of record. Mr. Richland’s allotted time expired while he was still attempting to answer questions from the judges, and he was unable to save any time for rebuttal by the Marshall family’s attorney, Eric Brunstad.
For his part, Mr. Brunstad used his allotted time to articulate his case and made legal arguments based on “core” vs. “non-core” bankruptcy jurisdiction, issue and claim preclusion and causes of action based on Texas law. He allowed himself rebuttal time, and used it to successfully challenge Mr. Richland’s incorrect contention that Ms. Smith’s side had never before claimed tortuous interference by a member of the Marshall family. Mr. Brunstad pointed out that this charge was indeed included in the opening sentence in the plaintiff's argument before the Texas probate court case in 2001.
While no date is set for the Ninth Circuit’s decision, some experts expect it by this fall or early next year. Hopefully, its decision will finally put an end to this case, which has become a symbol of how the legal system can be exploited to delay justice long after the merits of a case have been decided.
For the Marshall family, the rightful heirs to their patriarch’s estate, we hope and anticipate a successful conclusion to this fiasco.
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