U.S. Supreme Court

Chief Justice Quotes Dickens in Ruling Against Anna Nicole Smith Heirs


The heirs of Anna Nicole Smith won’t be able to collect on a tort judgment won against the son of her late billionaire husband because of a U.S. Supreme Court decision on the authority of bankruptcy judges.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Smith’s estate in a 5-4 decision (PDF) finding bankruptcy judges have no constitutional authority under Article III to decide common law tort claims. The judges have neither lifetime tenure nor salary protection, the court said, and cannot decide such claims.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote the majority opinion. It began with a quote from Charles Dickens’ Bleak House detailing long-running litigation in which the original parties have “died out of it.” Smith died of an accidental prescription drug overdose in 2007. Her husband’s son, E. Pierce Marshall, died from an infection in 2006. Dickens wrote of a “long procession” of judges and a suit that “drags its weary length before the court.”

“Those words were not written about this case,” Roberts wrote, “but they could have been.”

Smith had alleged that Pierce Marshall had interfered with plans by her late husband, oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall, to set up a trust for her behalf. A bankruptcy judge had awarded $474 million in damages on Smith’s tortious interference claim, later reduced to $88.6 million. Smith had filed the claim after Pierce Marshall asserted a claim for defamation.

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