Anna Nicole Smith Wins This Round of Her Case.--

On Monday, Anna Nicole Smith (AKA Vickie Lynn Marshall) won her US Supreme Court appeal of a 9th Circuit decision against her. (For background on the case, see my February post.)

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in her favor. As I had blogged at the time the case was argued, the 9th Circuit's view of the probate exception to federal jurisdiction was so broad that it could not stand.

The majority opinion by Justice Ginsburg does not delineate the scope of any probate exception, but establishes that this case is clearly outside it.

Thus, the probate exception reserves to state probate courts the probate or annulment of a will and the administration of a decedent’s estate; it also precludes federal courts from endeavoring to dispose of property that is in the custody of a state probate court. But it does not bar federal courts from adjudicating matters outside those confines and otherwise within federal jurisdiction.


As the Court of Appeals correctly observed, Vickie’s claim does not “involve the administration of an estate, the probate of a will, or any other purely probate matter.” 392 F. 3d, at 1133. . . .

Furthermore, no “sound policy considerations” militate in favor of extending the probate exception to cover the case at hand. Cf. Ankenbrandt, 504 U. S.,at 703. Trial courts, both federal and state, often address conduct of the kind Vickie alleges. State probate courts possess no “special proficiency … in handling [such] issues.” Cf. id., at 704. . . .

At issue here, however, is not the Texas Probate Court’s jurisdiction, but the federal courts’ jurisdiction to entertain Vickie’s tortious interference claim. Under our federal system, Texas cannot render its probate courts exclusively competent to entertain a claim of that genre. We therefore hold that the District Court properly asserted jurisdiction over Vickie’s counterclaim against Pierce.


After determining that Vickie’s claim was not a “core proceeding,” the District Court reviewed the case de novo and entered its final judgment on March 7, 2002. 275 B. R., at 5–8. The Texas Probate Court’s judgment became final on February 11, 2002, nearly one month earlier. App. to Pet. for Cert. 41. The Court of Appeals considered only the issue of federal subject-matter jurisdiction. It did not address the question whether Vickie’s claim was “core”; nor did it address Pierce’s arguments concerning claim and issue preclusion. 392 F. 3d, at 1137. These issues remain open for consideration on remand.

*  *  *

For the reasons stated, the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

So Anna Nicole Smith's 88 million dollar US District Court judgment is back to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals for hearing on appeal, where there are a range of issues yet to be determined.

In his Supreme Court opinion concurring in part and in the result, Justice Stevens argues that the probate exception should be abolished altogether. His opinion ends:

Rather than preserving whatever vitality that the “exception” has retained as a result of the Markham dicta, I would provide the creature with a decent burial in a grave adjacent to the resting place of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. See Lance v. Dennis, 546 U. S. ___, ___ (2006) (Stevens, J., dissenting) (slip op., at 2–3).

UPDATE: I'm seeing and reading some odd commentary on this case. A Florida estate and probate blog says:

The Trust Dispute Lawyers are continuing to continue their fight with the Probate Litigation[.] Attorneys will return to Probate Court.

I just saw Dr. Phil opining on Jay Leno that now Anna Nicole will be able to press her case and that it will go to a jury.

I confess that, though estates and trusts is one of my fields, federal jurisdiction is not. But as I read the case, Anna Nicole already has a large judgment in her favor, and Pierce Marshall has an appeal to the 9th Circuit, an appeal that raises many issues that the 9th Circuit needs to decide. While the 9th Circuit could send the case back to the District Court for rehearing, it could also affirm (or overturn) the decision in Anna's favor, without any new trial.

Thus, contrary to the Florida probate blogger, I don't think that there is any "probate court" to "return" to. And, contrary to Dr. Phil's opinion, a jury trial may not be in Anna's future, since she has already had two trials on the merits, and the triers of fact in her case so far have been first a bankruptcy judge, and then (de novo) a federal district court judge.