01 May 2006

Playmate of the Century

Anna Nicole Smith is a former Playmate. She was also the vastly younger wife of a very rich Texan, who had the poor sense to die leaving behind a son who truly despised his "stepmother." Depending upon whose story one believes, either the rich Texan intended to provide for Vickie Lynn Marshall (Anna Nicole Smith's legal name as married), but his intentions were thwarted by the son, or he intended to leave everything to his son. After fragmented proceedings worthy of an advanced civil procedure final exam involving:

  • Questioning whether federal jurisdiction in California exists in the face of a probate proceeding in Texas
  • Questioning whether this is a matter within the bankruptcy court's power to adjudicate (as distinct from its "jurisdiction," because as the district court correctly held the bankruptcy court's judgment acts as at least a recommendation to the district court)
  • Questioning whether inconsistent results mean inconsistent factual findings resulting in some kind of claim or issue preclusion (and, if so, which direction)
  • Questioning the validity of evidence presented by the son at all stages of the proceedings
  • Questioning the sanity of all participants

the Supreme Court decided without dissent this morning that Vickie wins (and, implicitly, that the son forged and otherwise mishandled legal documents).

It's normally a bad sign for the clarity of the underlying opinion when the syllabus runs onto a sixth page, especially when there is a concurring opinion. Fortunately for all concerned, this is not one of those times. More interestingly, Marshall v. Marshall essentially says that a purported "probate exception" to federal jurisdiction isn't nearly as wide as most courts have held it to be.

The first of the above-quoted passages from Markham is not a model of clear statement.… We read Markham's enigmatic words, in sync with the second above-quoted passage, to proscribe "disturb[ing] or affect[ing] the possession of property in the custody of a state court." True, that reading renders the first-quoted passage in part redundant, but redundancy in this context, we do not doubt, is preferable to incoherence. In short, we comprehend the "interference" language in Markham as essentially a reiteration of the general principle that, when one court is exercising in rem jurisdiction over a res, a second court will not assume in rem jurisdiction over the same res.

Marshall v. Marshall, No. 04–1544 (May 1, 2006), slip op. at logical 19–20 (Ginsburg, J.) (citations omitted) (PDF). Justice Stevens, in his concurring opinion, would go even farther and declare that there is no "probate exception" at all.

The familiar aphorism that hard cases make bad law should extend to easy cases as well. Markham v. Allen, like this case, was an easy case. In Markham, as here, it was unnecessary to question the historical or logical underpinnings of the probate exception to federal jurisdiction because, whatever the scope of the supposed exception, it did not extend to the case at hand. But Markham's obiter dicta—dicta that the Court now describes as redundant if not incoherent—generated both confusion and abdication of the obligation Chief Justice Marshall so famously articulated. While the Court today rightly abandons much of that dicta, I would go further.

Id., slip op. at logical 25–26 (Stevens, J., concurring) (citations omitted).

What I find most interesting is that this is yet another instance this Term of explicit criticism of a prior decision for poor writing that led to later, overly expansive misinterpretation that, in turn, unduly restricted federal jurisdiction. I think what the Court has been saying this Term is that the principle that "federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction" does not imply that the limits are as narrow as conceivable.