Chief Justice John Roberts, likening the case to a 19th century Dickens novel, announced today that the court had found against the estate of Anna Nicole Smith, in a nearly 15-year battle waged to win millions of dollars from the estate of her former husband J. Howard Marshall II.
In a highly technical ruling a 5-4 majority of the court found that a bankruptcy court had exceeded its authority in originally awarding Smith over $400 million in damages.
"We conclude," Roberts wrote, "that, although the Bankruptcy Court had the statutory authority to enter judgment on [Anna Nicole Smith's ] counterclaim, it lacked the constitutional authority to do so."
Anna Nicole Smith, a former Playboy Playmate, married J. Howard Smith (who was 60 years her senior) in 1994, about a year before his death.
Although he gave her money and gifts during their marriage she was not included in his will.
Anna Nicole Smith charged that Pierce Marshall, her husband's son, had fraudulently taken steps to prevent her from inheriting any of her husband's money.
Upon her husband's death she filed a petition for bankruptcy in California. That court originally awarded her $400 million in compensatory damages and $25 million in punitive damages.
Pierce Marshall challenged the award.
However, in 2006 Pierce Marshall died and a year later Anna Nicole Smith died, so the legal proceedings continued on behalf of their estates.
Smith's lawyer said that today's ruling means his client's estate no longer has the right to the millions awarded by the bankruptcy court, but that there are continuing separate proceedings ongoing in other courts that leave open the possibility that Smith's estate could win some money from her former husband's estate.
"There are ongoing appeals," said Kent Richland, "because of the complexity of the case there are other aspects to the case in other courts that will continue to be finalized."
But G. Eric Brunstad, counsel of record for the Pierce Marshall family issued a statement praising today's ruling. "Pierce Marshall's goal was always to follow the wishes of his father, J. Howard. And J. Howard's wishes were always perfectly clear: He gave Anna Nicole Smith approximately $8 million in gifts during his lifetime, and those gifts were all that he intended to give her."
The drama of the legal saga was not lost on the Chief Justice.
He quoted from Charles Dickens: "'This suit has, in course of time, become so complicated that no two lawyers can talk about it for five minutes, without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises. Innumerable children have been born into the cause: innumerable young people have married into it; and sadly the original parties 'have died out of it.'"
Roberts wrote, "Those words were not written about this case, see C. Dickens, Bleak House in 1 Works of Charles Dickens, but they should have been."