Associated Press//June 23, 2011
//June 23, 2011
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled against the estate of Anna Nicole Smith in the latest chapter of the long-running saga over whether a Texas billionaire’s alleged promise to give millions from his $1.6 billion estate to his young Playmate wife trumped a will that left his fortune to his son.
The high court ruled that a bankruptcy judge’s decision giving millions to Smith from the estate of oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall was decided incorrectly because those judges do not have the constitutional right to reach outside of bankruptcy cases into a probate case.
Chief Justice John Roberts said in a 5-4 decision that the Constitution gives lifetime tenure to federal judges during good behavior and without diminution of salary.
Bankruptcy judges “enjoy neither tenure during good behavior nor salary protection,” Roberts said. “We conclude that, although the bankruptcy court had the statutory authority to enter judgment on Vickie’s counterclaim, it lacked the constitutional authority to do so.” Smith’s real name was Vickie Lynn Marshall.
Federal bankruptcy judges are appointed and can be removed by judges on the U.S. Appeals Court and their salaries are linked to that of federal judges. Bankruptcy judges serve 14-year terms.
The family of E. Pierce Marshall, son of J. Howard Marshall, cheered the decision.
“J. Howard’s wishes were always perfectly clear: He gave Anna Nicole Smith approximately $8 million in gifts during his lifetime, and those gifts were all that he intended to give her,” said Eric Brunstad, the Marshalls’ lawyer.
The convoluted dispute over the elder Marshall’s money has its roots in a Houston strip club where he met Smith. The two were wed in 1994 when he was 89 and she 26. Marshall died the next year and his will left his estate to his son and nothing to Smith.
Smith challenged the will, claiming that her husband promised to leave her more than $300 million above the cash and gifts showered on her during their 14-month marriage. A Houston jury said Marshall was mentally fit and under no undue pressure when he wrote a will leaving nearly all of his $1.6 billion estate to his son and nothing to Smith, a decision that has been upheld by the federal appeals court.
Smith moved to California after Marshall’s death and then filed bankruptcy in Los Angeles, alleging in federal court filings that her husband promised her a large share of the estate. A bankruptcy judge awarded her $475 million from Marshall’s estate, with a federal judge reducing that amount to $89 million in 2002.
Smith had wanted the courts to accept that ruling. But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco threw the bankruptcy court ruling out, saying a bankruptcy judge could not rule on the probate case.
Roberts agreed with that decision, and was joined in his judgment by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.
Justice Stephen Breyer wrote the dissent for himself and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
The case number is Stern v. Marshall, 10-179.g