J. Howard Marshall went out the way any red-blooded American should want to go: Married to a stripper a third his age, who dragged his heirs into an unseemly legal battle that required them to get down in the gutter with the former Vickie Lynn Hogan of Mexia, Texas.
Hogan, better known as Anna Nicole Smith, went bankrupt and died of a drug overdose in 2007. Her legal battle with J. Howard's son Pierce finally ended today when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a bankruptcy court didn't have the constitutional authority to award her $475 million in a counterclaim against Pierce for interfering with her efforts to claim an inheritance from her dear departed husband.
The decision is heavy going, even for lawyers. And there are no titillating details about Anna Nicole. But it delves into the some of the deepest issues of constitutional theory, namely the separation of powers and when Congress can suck matters out of so-called Article III courts and have them decided somewhere else. Since the New Deal large swaths of what might be considered litigation under other circumstances has been shifted to administrative agencies, whether it's workers' compensation suits or environmental claims. Bankruptcy judges, since they are not provided lifetime tenure and other protections under the Constitution, are not considered Article III judges.
The usual conservative majority, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, look to an 1856 case, Murray’s Lessee v. Hoboken Land & Improvement Co. to support the idea that Congress can remove some things that look like litigation from Article III courts, but not others. So they found the federal law allowing bankruptcy judges to hear counterclaims like Marshall's was unconstitutional.
Dissenters, led by Justice Stephen Breyer, said the majority read way too much into old Murray's Lessee and virtually ignored a 1932 case that established the power of administrative agencies to decide workers' compensation cases. Stripping bankruptcy judges of the right to hear cases surrounding the bankruptcy, he wrote, creates a "constitutionally required game of jurisdictional ping-pong between courts (that) would lead to inefficiency, increased cost,delay, and needless additional suffering among those faced with bankruptcy."
J. Howard and Anna Nicole, wherever you are, you can only look down and smile at the wealth you delivered to lawyers and the consternation, fleeting as it turned out to be, to your foes.
- bankruptcy court
- Chief Justice John Roberts
- J. Howard Marshall
- drug overdose
- Justice Stephen Breyer