Anna Nicole Smith Position Revealed in an Opening Brief to the US Supreme Court

We finally obtained copies of a host of filings with the Supreme Court in the case of Anna Nicole Smith (besides the US Amicus brief noted here) (pdf), including the opening brief filed by Anna's lawyers (pdf).

The respondent's brief is due to be filed on January 20, 2006. Oral argument is scheduled for February 28, 2006.

Four questions are presented:

1. What is the scope of the probate exception to federal jurisdiction?


2. Did Congress intend the probate exception to apply where a federal court is not asked to probate a will, administer an estate, or otherwise assume control of property in the custody of a state probate court?

3. Did Congress intend the probate exception to apply to cases arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States (28 U.S.C. § 1331), including the Bankruptcy Code (28 U.S.C. § 1334), or is it limited to cases in which jurisdiction is based on diversity of citizenship?

4. Did Congress intend the probate exception to apply to cases arising out of trusts, or is it limited to cases involving wills?

An amicus brief in support (further discussed here) was also submitted by an all-star lineup of bankruptcy academicians (Richard Aaron, Jagdeep S. Bhandari, Susan Block-Lieb, Ralph Brubaker, Erwin Chemerinsky, Robert D'Agostino, S. Elizabeth Gibson, Robert M. Lawless, Charles Mooney, C. Scott Pryor, Nancy Rapoport, Robert K. Rasmussen, Keith Sharfman, Ettie Ward and Robert M. Zinman) (pdf).

Additionally, counsel for both petitioner and respondent submitted an approximately 250 page joint appendix containing excerpts from various relevant judgments, answers, opinions, briefs, jury instructions, and transcripts.

Anna's lawyers summarize her position before the Court on these questions as follows:

"On occasion, a would-be doctrinal rule or test finds its way into our case law through simple repetition of a phrase - however fortuitously coined." Lingle v. Chevron U.S.A. Inc., 125 S. Ct. 2074, 2077 (2005). The "probate exception" is such a rule. This Court has never recognized a "probate exception" to federal jurisdiction - i.e., a blanket jurisdictional bar that is uniquely applicable to probate-related claims. [FN 11] To the contrary, throughout its history, this Court repeatedly has held that there is broad federal jurisdiction over all kinds of probate-related claims, including claims to decedents' estates by heirs, legatees and creditors. In the occasional case where the Court held that there was no jurisdiction over a particular probate-related claim, it did so because a statutory jurisdictional requisite was not met - for example, because the parties were not diverse or because the plaintiff had not pled a case "at common law or in equity" - not because a non-statutory subject-matter exception precluded the exercise of federal jurisdiction.
[FN 11] This Court has decided many probate-related claims, but it has never used the term "probate exception." That term appears to have been used for the first time in Magaziner v. Montemuro, 468 F.2d 782, 787 (3d Cir. 1972), a domestic relations case; it apparently was first used in a probate-related case in Lee v. Hunt, 431 F. Supp. 371, 377 (W.D. La. 1977).

In the late twentieth century, some of the lower federal courts transmogrified this jurisprudence into a single, amorphous, undifferentiated "probate exception" that potentially excludes federal jurisdiction over any claim that concerns a decedent's will or property. As defined by these courts, this "probate exception" is unmoored from its origins and has no discernible limiting principles. As a result, as the Ninth Circuit's opinion here illustrates, it is being used to restrict federal jurisdiction in broad and unprecedented ways.

The Court should reject the "probate exception" as a basis for determining federal jurisdiction. Instead, it should follow a single lodestar: Federal jurisdiction should be exercised as fully as the Constitution permits and Congress intended. Under this principle, this Court must conclude that there is federal subject matter jurisdiction in the present case.

First, this Court has recognized federal jurisdiction over all manner of probate-related claims - so long as the normal requisites of federal jurisdiction are met - even including claims seeking interpretation of a will, determination of a decedent's testamentary intent, and allocation of interests in a decedent's estate. The claim at issue here has no such direct relation to probate. Vickie, a debtor in bankruptcy, is suing to recover tort damages against Pierce personally. Her suit does not seek anything from Howard's probate estate, and it neither implicates his testamentary intent nor challenges the validity of his will or trust. Its outcome, thus, could have no possible effect on probate court proceedings - not on the interpretation of Howard's testamentary documents nor on the administration or distribution of his probate estate. Accordingly, this Court's jurisprudence compels the conclusion that federal jurisdiction over Vickie's claim is not defeated by any "probate exception."

Second, the "probate exception," however understood, can have no application in a bankruptcy case. The bankruptcy jurisdiction statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1334, invests federal courts with exclusive in rem jurisdiction over all property of the bankruptcy estate, and with concurrent jurisdiction over all bankruptcy-related claims. The sweeping federal jurisdiction conferred by section 1334 and its legislative history refute any notion that Congress intended state courts to have exclusive jurisdiction over *11 bankruptcy-related probate matters. There is no place for a "probate exception" in this scheme.

Third, the lower federal courts that have rejected this Court's probate jurisprudence have, in one form or another, adopted two tests for applying a "probate exception" to divest the federal courts of jurisdiction; the Ninth Circuit applied both here. Both tests distort the precedents on which they ostensibly are based, rely on jurisdictional analyses that this Court has repudiated and fly in the face of Congress's clearly expressed intent regarding the scope of federal subject matter jurisdiction.

For all of these reasons, there is federal jurisdiction in the present case. Accordingly, we urge this Court to reverse the Ninth Circuit and reinstate the judgment of the district court.

Anna's statement of the case and her arguments are set forth under the following sub-headings:

STATEMENT OF THE CASE ... p.1
A. The Intended Inter Vivos Trust ... p.1


B. The Initial Probate Proceedings ... p.2

C. Vickie's Chapter 11 Bankruptcy; Pierce's Creditor's Claim and Vickie's Counterclaim ... p.3

D. The Texas Probate Trial ... p.4

E. The Texas Probate Judgment ... p.5

F. The District Court's De Novo Review And Judgment Against Pierce ... p.6

G. Pierce's Appeal ... p.7

SUMMARY OF ARGUMENT ... p.9

ARGUMENT ... p.11

I. THERE IS NO "PROBATE EXCEPTION" TO FEDERAL SUBJECT MATTER JURISDICTION OVER AN INTER PARTES TORT ACTION ... p.11

A. This Court Consistently Has Recognized Broad Federal Jurisdiction Over Probate-Related Claims ... p.11


B. This Court Historically Has Recognized Only Narrow Limitations On Federal Probate Jurisdiction, Which Do Not Apply Here ... p.15

1. Statutory diversity limitations ... p.15


a. The inter partes requirement ... p.16

b. The diverse party requirement ... p.18

c. The common law or equity requirement ... p.19

2. The "Williams doctrine" ... p.23

C. The Court's Modern Decisions Demonstrate That There Is Federal Jurisdiction Over This Case ... p.24

1. Markham v. Allen ... p.24


2. The domestic relations exception: Ankenbrandt v. Richards ... p.25

D. This Court Should Reject The Concept Of A "Probate Exception" And Reaffirm Broad Federal Jurisdiction Over Probate-Related Claims ... p.28

II. THERE IS NO "PROBATE EXCEPTION" TO FEDERAL BANKRUPTCY JURISDICTION ... p.29

A. The Plain Language And Legislative History Of 28 U.S.C. § 1334 Demonstrate That Congress Invested The Federal Courts With Jurisdiction Over All Bankruptcy Claims And Intended No "Probate Exception" To That Comprehensive Jurisdictional Grant ... p.30


B. The Legislative History Of The Bankruptcy Code Shows That Congress Intended Federal Courts To Have Jurisdiction Over Assets Common To Bankruptcy And Probate Estates ... p.34

C. Section 1334's Abstention Provisions Are Further Evidence That Congress Did Not Intend A "Probate Exception" To Federal Bankruptcy Jurisdiction ... p.37

III. THIS COURT SHOULD REJECT THE "PROBATE EXCEPTION" POSITED BY THE NINTH CIRCUIT AND OTHER LOWER FEDERAL COURTS ... p.39

A. The Interference Test ... p.39
1. The interference test is fundamentally inconsistent with Markham, on which it ostensibly is based ... p.39


2. The interference test conflates preclusion and jurisdiction ... p.40

B. The State Law Test ... p.42

1. The state law test violates this Court's repeated holding that federal probate jurisdiction does not depend on state law ... p.42


2. The state law test is fundamentally inconsistent with the precedents on which it ostensibly is based ... p.45

CONCLUSION ... p.49

Stay tuned, more to follow.


© Steve Jakubowski 2005


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