Here’s a link to the amicus brief filed on 11/21/05 by the US in support of Anna Nicole Smith in her case before the US Supreme Court, Marshall v. Marshall, No. 04-1454 (referenced here) (<a href="pdf). Looks like this is the first brief filed since the Court granted Anna’s petition for certiorari last September.
The “Question Presented” is:
Whether a claim that falls within the scope of the jurisdiction conferred upon the federal courts and that seeks neither to probate a will nor to administer or assume control over the property in a decedent’s estate is nevertheless excepted from federal jurisdiction if it involves the adjudication of rights related to property that is the subject of an ongoing state probate proceeding.
The “Interest of the United States” is described as follows:
The decision below adopts an expansive view of the so-called “probate exception” to federal jurisdiction, holding that “all federal courts *** are required to refrain from deciding state law probate matters, no matter how the issue is framed by the parties.” Pet. App. 2-3. In so holding, the court of appeals reasoned that state law can grant state probate courts sole jurisdiction over “all probate matters” – specifically including those “based on a theory of tax liability” or “debt” – to the exclusion of the courts of the United States. Id. at 34.
The United States has a substantial interest in the scope of any “probate exception” to federal jurisdiction. Congress has vested the federal courts with jurisdiction over all claims by (and many claims against) the United *2 States, including claims involving federal tax liability. See, e.g., 28 U.S.C. 1340, 1345-1347, 1442, 1444, 2410. Pursuant to those jurisdictional grants, the United States files probate-related claims in federal court, such as claims regarding the tax liability of decedents’ estates, and removes to federal court probate-related claims brought against the United States in state court. As a result, the scope of the so-called “probate exception” to federal jurisdiction has arisen, explicitly and implicitly, in cases involving the United States. See, e.g., Ashton v. Josephine Bay Paul & C. Michael Paul Found., Inc., 918 F.2d 1065, 1067-1068 (2d Cir. 1990); Estate of Threefoot, 316 F. Supp. 2d 636, 642-645 (W.D. Tenn. 2004). The United States therefore has a substantial interest in preserving its ability to have claims to which it is a party resolved in federal court as provided by Congress.
In addition, the United States Trustee Program, a component of the United States Department of Justice, has an interest in the efficiency and integrity of the federal bankruptcy system. Congress established the Program in the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1978, 11 U.S.C. 101 et seq., to further the public interest in the just, speedy, and economical resolution of cases filed under the Bankruptcy Code. The Program monitors the conduct of bankruptcy parties and private estate trustees, oversees related administrative functions, and acts to ensure compliance with applicable laws and procedures. In the Program’s view, recognition of a broad “probate exception” to the statutory jurisdiction of bankruptcy courts could interfere with the ability of the bankruptcy system to administer debtors’ estates expeditiously, fairly, and efficiently for the benefit of creditors.
The brief’s “Summary of Argument” provides as follows:
The court of appeals’ expansive interpretation of the so-called “probate exception” to federal jurisdiction cannot be reconciled with longstanding precedent from this Court. It is well established that the pendency of a state probate proceeding is no bar to the exercise of concurrent federal jurisdiction over a suit to determine rights to the property at issue in that probate proceeding. See, e.g., Markham v. Allen, 326 U.S. 490, 494-495 (1946). The only limitation on such jurisdiction is that the federal judgment cannot be enforced directly against the decedent’s estate, but must either take its place in the probate proceedings or be enforced against someone else who is liable. See, e.g., Waterman v. Canal-Louisiana Bank & Trust Co., 215 U.S. 33, 44 (1909).
Moreover, the existence of such federal jurisdiction cannot be defeated by state law. Rather, federal jurisdiction is conferred by the Constitution and Congress, and “is not subject to limitations or restraint by state legislation establishing courts of probate and giving them jurisdiction over similar matters.” Waterman, 215 U.S. at 43. The case upon which respondent relies, Sutton v. English, 246 U.S. 199 (1918), is not to the contrary. At most, that case stands for the narrow proposition that federal courts lack original jurisdiction over matters of “strict probate” – the probate of a will or the annulment of a probated will – but, even then, only if the State does not allow such a remedy by an independent suit. Id. at 205. The Sutton limitation does not apply here because petitioner’s counterclaim seeks neither to probate a will nor to invalidate a probated will. Pet. App. 28. There is no warrant for extending that will-specific rule beyond its narrow bounds to encompass inter vivos and other trusts.
In any event, whatever the scope of the “probate exception” with respect to litigation between private parties, it would be particularly inappropriate to apply such an exception to litigation involving the United States. Congress has expressly vested the federal courts with jurisdiction to resolve most disputes involving the United States, and the availability of that federal forum should not be frustrated by an expansive judicially-created exception.
The brief’s arguments unfold under the following sub-headings:
A. The pendency of a state probate proceeding does not deprive a federal court of jurisdiction to adjudicate rights to property of the decedent’s estate … p.9
B. State law cannot constrict federal jurisdiction over probate-related matters … p.12
C. The Ninth Circuit’s decision is inconsistent with Markham … p.18
D. A broad probate-related exception to federal jurisdiction would be particularly unwarranted to the extent that Congress has granted the United States a federal forum … p.23
E. Even when federal jurisdiction exists, federal courts may have discretion to refrain from exercising jurisdiction … p.28
© Steve Jakubowski 2005