Tuesday, May 2, 2006

Case Law Development: United States Supreme Court Narrows Probate Exception

The United States Supreme Court retained the probate exception to federal jurisdiction but confined it to its narrowest terms in Anne Nicole Smith's action battle over her inheritance.  Justice Ginsburg, writing for the court, began by reviewing the domestic relations exception to federal court jurisdiction and the narrowing interpretation given that exception in Ankenbrandt v. Richards, 504 U.S. 689 (1992).  Turning to the probate exception, the court took a similar narrowing approach.  Describing the courts prior statements regarding the probate exception in Markham v. Allen, 326 U.S. 490 (1946) as "not a model of clear statement" and noting the expansive interpretation given to the doctrine by some lower federal courts,  Justice Ginsburg interpreted the language of Markham in its narrowest terms.  "This Court reads Markham's enigmatic words ... to proscribe "disturbing or affecting the possession of property in the custody of a state court." ... Though that reading renders the first-quoted passage in part redundant, redundancy in this context is preferable to incoherence. This Court therefore comprehends Markham's "interference" language as essentially a reiteration of the general principle that, when one court is exercising in rem jurisdiction over a res, a second court will not assume in rem jurisdiction over the same res." 

Justice Stevens would have gone further and simply abolished the probate exception. "Rather than preserving whatever vitality that the "exception" has retained as a result of the Markham dicta, I would provide the creature with a decent burial in a grave adjacent to the resting place of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine."

Marshall v. Marshall, 2006 U.S. LEXIS 3456 (May 1, 2006)
Opinion on the web (last visited May 2, 2006 bgf)

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/family_law/2006/05/case_law_develo_5.html

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