[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] ruled Monday in Marshall v. Marshall [Duke Law case backgrounder; JURIST report], 04-1544, that federal courts can in some cases decide disputes which involve state probate laws. In overturning a decision [PDF text] from the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the Court handed a victory to model Anna Nicole Smith (Vickie Lynn Marshall) in her attempt to gain half of the estate left by her late husband J. Howard Marshall II [profile], an oil magnate many years older than she was who had been an assistant dean at Yale Law School in the early 1930s. In a continuing dispute between Smith and the adult son of her late husband in the wake of a 2001 Texas probate ruling [text] which awarded Smith nothing, Smith won a favorable judgment from a federal bankruptcy court for $475 million, but the son challenged that decision, arguing that the federal court lacked jurisdiction to decide the case because the dispute involved state probate issues.
Writing for a unanimous court, Justice Ginsburg said that:
the probate exception reserves to state probate courts the probate or annulment of a will and the administration of a decedent's estate; it also precludes federal courts from endeavoring to dispose of property that is in the custody of a state probate court. But it does not bar federal courts from adjudicating matters outside those confines and otherwise within federal jurisdiction.
Read the Court's unanimous opinion [text], per Justice Ginsburg, along with a concurrence [text] from Justice Stevens. AP has more.