(Chuck Muth) – After more than a decade winding through every crevice of our nation’s legal system, it appears that Marshall v. Marshall – the famous case involving Anna Nicole Smith and her late husband’s estate – is finally drawing to a close.
Last month, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a previous Texas decision, which ruled that J. Howard Marshall II’s extensive gifts and provisions to Smith during their marriage made any further inheritance unwarranted, should stand. And, as any legal expert will be quick to tell you, the conclusion of this case is long past due.
Few legal battles have captivated the public’s attention to the degree that this case has. But beyond the headlines rests a case with implications much greater than the tabloid fodder it was often portrayed as. On pure legal merits, the Ninth Circuit’s recent ruling was not only a victory for the Marshall family, but also a victory for the sanctity of the American legal system and even for the Constitution.
Here was a case that had been litigated far beyond its merits – to an extent where it had become clear that Howard K. Stern (Smith’s lawyer, boyfriend, and now estate executor) and his posse of contingency-seeking counsel were grasping at straws in hopes of somehow getting their hands on long-sought after Marshall money. The abuse that the Smith camp has wrought on the legal system started long ago and has continued to this day as they seek to extend this case far beyond its legal justification.
Just how belabored has the point of this litigation become? Look no further than the long and winding road that the legal battle has taken. Starting in April of 1995, before her husband’s death, Anna Nicole first filed proceedings against her husband’s family in a Houston Probate Court. The case then meandered all the way to the Ninth Circuit’s decision last month– with stops in between ranging from a federal bankruptcy court in California to a California District Court all the way up to the United States Supreme Court.
The recent Ninth Circuit decision ruled that the courts must honor the original 2001 probate decision that said that Marshall adequately provided for Smith during their courtship and marriage but that he never intended to leave her gifts from his living trust after his death.
So, after fifteen years of litigation, the clocks were wound all the way back to a decision that came almost ten years ago. Why, then, did the case go on for so long?
The answer is simple. Smith’s legal team, in utilizing a battery of tricky legal maneuvers such as “forum shopping,” managed to move this case from venue to venue in pursuit of a favorable panel of judges. While the case was pending in the Texas probate court, Smith’s lawyers did what they could to move jurisdiction over the matter to California bankruptcy court, a venue more likely to see things their way.
The bankruptcy court would ultimately rule in favor of Anna Nicole to the tune of $474 million – an amount that was later reduced to $88 million by a District Court. This ruling was then appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, who in 2004 entered its original judgment upholding the Texas probate court ruling, confirming that they were indeed the final court of record. The Smith legal team then brought the case all the way up to the Supreme Court, which remanded the case back to the Ninth Circuit for further consideration.
But despite all of the legal maneuvering, Smith’s lawyers could never get out from under the facts. The millions of dollars in gifts Marshall provided Smith during his life comprised the full portion of his estate to which she was legally entitled. The exhausting legal maneuvering after Marhshall’s death, which now continues even after Smith’s death, is being driven by the millions of dollars in contingency fee’s Smith’s lawyers stand to gain rather than by any legal merit.
Clearly, the Ninth Circuit got this one right. If the Smith camp had gotten their way, the precedent set for estate law would have been damaging to say the least.
Had the Ninth Circuit ruled the other way, dissatisfied parties around the country could have “used bankruptcy strategically to rewrite obligations just to get a better deal than they could outside bankruptcy”. The result would have been an entire new industry of hearse chasing lawyers looking to profit from disputes over family estates. Howard K. Stern alone is seeking up to 6% of any winnings Smith receives from the Marshall estate, and Smith’s other lawyers are seeking even more. Kudos to the members of the Ninth Circuit panel in making a decision that was not only right for this case, but right for the American legal system as well.
Smith’s legal team, true to form, continue to seek further review of this case by recently requesting a review before the full 9th Circuit panel of justices, and is largely expected to file a second appeal to the Supreme Court should that en banc review be denied. But after this latest rebuke, observers around the nation are nearly unified in their assumption that any further pursuit is futile and moot. Once the facts about Smith’s lawyers are known – it’s clear that this case trudges along out of greed rather than true legal merit.
Let’s hope the 9th Circuit decision is upheld, putting an end to lawyer driven rent-seeking.