The XX Factor

Was the Supreme Court Entranced by Anna Nicole Smith’s Celebrity?

The Supreme Court ruled this morning that the estate of tragic tabloid queen Anna Nicole Smith will not cash in on the $475 million that a California bankruptcy court awarded her in 2002.* Smith’s lawyers claimed she was entitled to the money because it was a gift from now-deceased J. Howard Marshall, the 89-year-old billionaire who Smith famously wed at 26. The written opinion issued today was rather bland (nothing like Dahlia’s original hopes for a spicier exchange between the justices): It was primarily a discussion of whether a 1984 law was unconstitutional in allowing bankruptcy judges to rule on questions of state law. The Court ruled that the law had, in fact, given those judges too much power-which is fairly significant for people who care about bankruptcy courts. But for Smith’s estate, the only real member of which is her 3 ½-year old daughter, Dannielynn, it means they get zilch. Pierce Marshall , J. Howard’s son, takes all of the $1.6 billion (though neither Smith nor Marshall, who began their legal battle in 1994, is alive to see its resolution today).

The complicated constitutional issues in the 38-page opinion heavily overshadow the Shakespearean betrayals and Harlequin romance drama simmering beneath. Smith, in fact, was mentioned only once at the oral argument. In the written opinion, she is dryly referred to by her legal name, Vickie Lynn Marshall. The closest the Justice’s get to the theatrical underpinnings is when Justice Roberts compares the procedural history to Dickens’s Bleak House.*

Indeed, the Dickensian circus surrounding Anna Nicole Smith not only clogged the media; it arguably clogged the courts. This is the second time that the Supreme Court, which declines to hear thousands of cases per year, has given floor time to Smith’s estate. The case saw four courthouses before it first made its way to the high court in 2006, when it was sent back to a lower court to be sorted out. This term, it again won the coveted ears of The Nine. (Meanwhile, the Court just declined to consider the case of a Guantanamo inmate challenging rendition to a country where he would likely be tortured and the case of a death row inmate in Georgia whose conviction was based on the testimony of witnesses who have since recanted.)

Four years after the end of her sad life, Smith somehow continues to lose. She’s lost J. Howard’s millions. Her 17-year-old son, Daniel, overdosed and died in 2006. Months later, Smith herself overdosed . Let’s hope Dannielynn, who has already been the subject of a widely publicized paternity case , is able to find peace-out of the courts and out of the tabloids.

Correction, June 24, 2011 : This post originally misattributed the Bleak House comparison to Justice Kennedy; it was Chief Justice Roberts who threw in the literary flair. In addition, the bankruptcy court that was overturned in the case was in California, not Texas. Ms. Smith filed her original claim against Pierce Marshall in Texas, but filed for bankruptcy in California.