The late Anna Nicole Smith is back in the news. Smith died from a drug overdose in 2007, but her lawsuit against the estate of her former husband, J. Howard Marshall, lives on. In the latest legal maneuver, the executor of her estate, Howard K. Stern—who is currently facing legal troubles of his own after being charged with conspiring to prescribe and administer drugs to the late model in violation of California law—asked Justice Kennedy to lift a stay issued by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in order to allow the estate to collect on a judgment issued by a California federal court against Marshall’s estate. Kennedy rejected the request, which comes as little surprise, given the merits of the case, and the lack of merits of the petition.
The whole tawdry tale is one of litigation run amok, which I have previously discussed here, and the ever insightful Professor Rotunda discussed more recently here. Recapping the case briefly, in an attempt to gain more than the millions in cash and gifts that she had received during his life, Anna Nicole challenged her billionaire husband’s estate plan, claiming that he had made a verbal promise of half of his fortune. The jury in Texas didn’t buy this story, so she shopped for a more receptive court in California, and she found one in a federal bankruptcy court. The Ninth Circuit dismissed the millions awarded by the court based upon a federal jurisdictional rule, but the Supreme Court in 2007 reversed, saying that the federal court could consider the merits of the case.
Contrary to Stern’s failed petition, which suggests that he is now entitled to the judgment, his case looks grim. For when the Ninth Circuit looks at the merits, they will be obliged to apply Texas law and to respect the final decision of the Texas probate court. That court was crystal clear:
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED, ADJUDGED, AND DECREED by the Court that J. HOWARD MARSHALL II did not intend to give and did not give to VICKIE LYNN MARSHALL, A/K/A ANNA NICOLE SMITH, a gift or bequest from the Estate of J. HOWARD MARSHALL II or from the J. Howard Marshall, II, Living Trust either prior to or upon his death.
And yet, despite this clear finding, finality is not had. All the original players in the sad drama are now dead, but the litigation continues. The law treats probate court judgments as determinative of these questions for a reason: to avoid the protracted litigation and gamesmanship that have been the hallmark of this case.