I recently had a piece run in the Daily Journal, California’s largest legal news publication, on the 9th Circuit Probate Court’s decision in the Anna Nicole Smith case. Below is the piece which ran on April 9, 2010.
After 15 years of wasteful litigation and real-life soap opera, the case of Marshall v. Marshall appears to finally be over. On March 19, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Texas probate court as the court of record, which ruled that J. Howard Marshall II provided for Anna Nicole Smith while he was alive and his will clearly left his estate to his youngest son, E. Pierce Marshall. This marked the end of a long and winding road of legal treachery on the part of the lawyers handling Anna Nicole’s estate.
This case has already taken a tumultuous path of appeals and has dragged on to become one of the most over litigated cases in probate history. The case has traveled from Texas to California and all the way up to the Supreme Court and back again. Smith’s attorneys have indicated their intentions to continue with appeals. The first strategy in the playbook will be to file for an en banc review of the entire 9th Circuit. But to legal observers, the 9th Circuit’s decision made it pretty clear it was the end of the road for Smith and her posse of increasingly desperate lawyers.
The 9th Circuit upheld the Constitution and affirmed that federal courts must respect an earlier decision by a Texas jury and probate court. This is a clear victory for the legal principle of preclusion, which roughly means that a case cannot be re-tried if the plaintiff has had a “full and fair” opportunity to litigate the issue in another jurisdiction. Smith’s lawyers did have that opportunity, and the jury and court rejected their claims at the outset.
The latest decision by the 9th Circuit was essentially the same verdict they reached back in 2004, which punted the decision from California back to Texas. The Texas probate court, the only court to fully examine the merits of the case, determined that Marshall took the necessary and legal steps to leave his estate to his youngest son and that Smith had no claims to Marshall’s estate.
Though the 9th Circuit’s decision this March likely marks the end of the road for this legal battle, the incredible path that this case has taken is worth a fresh look, given the potentially tremendous implications it had on our nation’s legal system. Before her husband had even died, Smith contested his living trust claiming Marshall verbally promised her part of his estate. The Texas probate court held a jury trial that lasted over five months and heard from over 40 witnesses. The jury ruled that Marshall provided for Smith during his lifetime and there was no evidence presented that he intended to alter his will or living trust. Furthermore, claims that E. Pierce Marshall interfered with his father’s estate plan were unfounded.
Before the Texas probate court ruled on Smith’s claim, her lawyers filed a concurrent case in a California bankruptcy court. Many people believe Smith’s bankruptcy claim was simply an effort to “forum shop,” an abusive legal practice wherein the plaintiff “shops” around different courts in order to achieve a favorable outcome or stave off a negative outcome. Disturbingly, Smith was originally successful with this strategy and was awarded some $474 million – a decision that was eventually vacated for understandable reasons.
The case then traveled through the federal court system all the way to the Supreme Court, which essentially just remanded the case back down to the 9th Circuit, another volley in the legal ping-pong that had already been ongoing for years. The 9th Circuit ruled that Smith’s claim to Marshall’s estate was not a “core” issue of the bankruptcy case and therefore asserted the jurisdiction of the Texas probate court, whose initial decision so many years ago ruled against Smith’s claims.
It is now more apparent than ever that the Texas decision was the “trial of record” and that any attempts to further appeal the case on Smith’s behalf would be an even further waste of time and money. The 9th Circuit should be applauded. Their decision sends a clear message that legal abuses like forum shopping will not be tolerated. Let us not forget that, at the end of the day, it will be Smith’s daughter, Dannielynn, who must bear the brunt of the legal bills that have piled up over the last decade and a half.
April 13th, 2010
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