Our Out Of Control Courts: Bankruptcy Courts Now Deciding Cases on Feelings?

One of the issues that many conservatives have focused on is our out of control court system and the constant judicial overreach that occurs therein. Here we have yet another case of a court insinuating itself into an area in which it previously never had purview and if this decision stands it will open our courts to a flood of court shopping that will turn our legal system further down the wrong road.

At least since the forced busing case of 1971 and the Roe v Wade abortion case, conservatives have been complaining about judges taking undue powers unto themselves. For decades these power mad judges have been expanding their reach to control our lives until even our state and federal legislatures have seemed to give up their rightful role as lawmakers. Once again we have a judge that has reached beyond his proper role.

The case in question is Marshall v. Marshall and, yes, once again Anna Nicole Smith is going before the U.S. Supreme Court — and from beyond the grave at that. The reason a Smith matter is again before the SCOTUS four years after her death is because one of her cases was decided by a federal bankruptcy court in California on reasons that had nothing at all to do with technical bankruptcy rules. The case before the SCOTUS would determine if the bankruptcy court acted properly.

If you’ll recall, Anna Nicole Smith took her wealthy, departed husband’s estate to court claiming that he’d made a verbal promise to give her millions of dollars and part of his estate upon his passing. But Marshall’s extensive, detailed estate plan did not mention her at all so when she initially brought her case before a Texas Probate court, she lost. Not surprisingly when Smith realized she would not be satisfied with the outcome in Texas she and her legal team began shopping for courts that would give a favorable decision. She found that in a federal bankruptcy court in California.

Despite that the Marshall estate plan made no mention of Smith and despite that the plan was letter perfect to the law, California bankruptcy Judge Samuel L. Bufford had sympathy for Anna Nicole Smith and ruled in her favor. Essentially this bankruptcy judge based his decision on personal injury to Smith as opposed to using technical bankruptcy laws to make his decision.

Bufford was accused of breaking two rules. First, he took a case despite that the “probate exception” rule required that the case stay in Texas and second he took the case even though it wasn’t a “core matter” for a bankruptcy proceeding.

California’s Ninth Circuit Court, a court much derided as the “Ninth Circus” for finding “penumbras” at every turn, ruled that the bankruptcy judge was wrong agreeing that the California case shouldn’t have been called because the case was a Texas matter.

The “probate exception” part of this case already went before the SCOTUS and the high court sided with the bankruptcy judge. But the Ninth Circuit did not rule on the “core matter” part of the case and that is the part that is going back before the Supremes.

This year the highest court in the land will be tasked with deciding if Judge Bufford had a right to hear the case even though it was not a “core matter” for his court, even though he basically had no proper jurisdiction. This case will rule on whether or not bankruptcy judges can stray from the closely delineated rules of bankruptcy law and take cases tangential to traditional bankruptcy.

Of course bankruptcy courts have nothing to do with personal injury issues. Further they shouldn’t. But if the California bankruptcy judge is upheld this will open our legal system to a spate of court shopping that will undermine bankruptcy laws all across the land.

Imagine how hard it will be to plan your estate if a federal bankruptcy judge can give your money away to someone you don’t want to reward simply because the judge feels he has the right to wander from the technical aspects of the law and instead enter into territory that has nothing at all to do with the rules he’s supposed to be observing. Worse, imagine that someone looking to steal away your estate can take his meritless case to any court in the country, any court that is sympathetic to his case.

It would be a disaster, for sure.

So, we as conservatives should want something we almost never want. That would be for California’s Ninth Circuit Court decision to reverse Bufford to be upheld. Bankruptcy Judge Samuel L. Bufford’s ruling must be affirmed as wrongly decided.

If Bufford is upheld our courts will spin even further out of control. That is something that none of us should want.


Amicus Brief

Anna Nicole Smith Returns to the Supreme Court, by Robert Alt

SCOTUS to Hear Anna Nicole Smith Case, by Todd Zywicki, the Volokh Conspiracy blog

Anna Nicole Smith Goes Shopping: The New Forum Shopping Problem in Bankruptcy , Working Paper by by Todd Zywicki

Marshall v Marshall, Wikipedia

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