In Stern v. Marshall, 131 S. Ct. 2594 (2011), the estate of Vickie Lynn Marshall, a.k.a. Anna Nicole Smith, lost by a 5-4 margin Round 2 of its Supreme Court bout with the estate of E. Pierce Marshall in a contest over Vickie's rights to a portion of the fortune of her late husband, billionaire J. Howard Marshall II. The dollar figures in dispute, amounting to more than $400 million, and the celebrity status of the original (and now deceased) litigants may grab headlines. But the real story here is the Supreme Court's declaration that a portion of the Federal Judicial Code addressing the bankruptcy court's "core" jurisdiction is unconstitutional.  

The Dispute

In 1994, Vickie married 89-year-old oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall II. About one year after they were married, J. Howard passed away. Shortly before he passed, Vickie filed suit in a Texas probate court alleging that J. Howard's younger son, E. Pierce Marshall, fraudulently induced J. Howard to sign a living trust that did not include Vickie as a beneficiary, even though J. Howard meant to provide Vickie with half his fortune. Pierce denied wrongdoing and defended the trust and, eventually, J. Howard's "pour-over" will, which provided that all of J. Howard's assets not already included in the living trust were to be transferred to the trust upon his death.

After J. Howard's death, Vickie filed for chapter 11 relief in a California bankruptcy court. Pierce filed a defamation complaint in the bankruptcy case against Vickie, alleging she induced her lawyers to tell the media that Pierce had fraudulently controlled J. Howard's estate planning. The complaint, which was followed by Pierce's filing a proof of claim, sought a declaration that the defamation claim was nondischargeable in Vickie's bankruptcy. Vickie defended on the merits and, at the same time, asserted a counterclaim against Pierce for tortious interference with the gift she expected from J. Howard.

The California bankruptcy court granted Vickie's motion for summary judgment on Pierce's defamation complaint and later, after a bench trial, found in favor of Vickie on her counterclaim. After the bankruptcy court's ruling on these matters, the Texas probate court reached the opposite result - that is, after the completion of a jury trial on the merits, the Texas court entered a judgment for Pierce. On Pierce's appeal to the federal district court in California, the district court came to three notable conclusions. First, the bankruptcy court could not have appropriately exercised core jurisdiction and, as a result, the district court would treat the bankruptcy court's ruling on the counterclaim as a proposed, rather than final, judgment. Second, the Texas probate court's judgment was not entitled to preclusive effect. And third, applying its own independent review of the record, the district court found that Pierce had tortiously interfered with J. Howard's gift to Vickie.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court on the ground that the "probate exception" to federal court jurisdiction precluded the federal courts from hearing Vickie's counterclaim. According to the circuit, the exception meant that the Texas probate court had exclusive in rem jurisdiction over all claims either against or on behalf of J. Howard's estate. As a result, the Ninth Circuit ruled, Vickie's victories in the federal courts below were not supported by appropriate federal jurisdiction and therefore had to be reversed. The parties took their disputes to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 2006 opinion, the Supreme Court reversed the circuit's decision, ruling that the circuit had applied an improperly broad approach to the "probate exception" and that the exception did not govern the circumstances presented. Round 1 in the Supreme Court thus went to Vickie. But this was not the end of the bout. In their 2006 opinion, the justices did not decide whether or not the bankruptcy court's exercise of jurisdiction over Vickie's counterclaim in the bankruptcy court was "core."

On remand to the Ninth Circuit, the circuit took up this question and held that the bankruptcy court could not in fact exercise "core" jurisdiction over Vickie's counterclaim against Pierce. The bankruptcy court's judgment was therefore a "proposed" judgment only, not a final one. Because the Texas probate court issued a final judgment prior to the district court in California, the Texas court's judgment was the earliest final judgment issued on the relevant matters. As the first final judgment, the Texas probate court's holding, according to the circuit, was entitled to preclusive effect.

The Supreme Court again granted certiorari.

Bankruptcy Jurisdiction

Article III, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution provides that "[t]he judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish." The Article states that such judges "shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office." 

The exercise of the "judicial Power of the United States" is vested in Article III judges. Bankruptcy judges, however, are not Article III judges. They do not have life tenure, and their salaries are subject to diminution. Instead, bankruptcy judges are technically authorized under Article I, which governs the legislative branch and authorizes the establishment of a uniform system of federal bankruptcy laws. Under principles of separation of powers, bankruptcy judges cannot exercise the judicial power reserved for Article III judges.

Twenty-nine years ago, in Northern Pipeline Constr. Co. v. Marathon Pipe Line Co., 458 U.S. 50 (1982), the Supreme Court struck down the Bankruptcy Act of 1978 because it conferred Article III judicial power upon bankruptcy judges who lacked life tenure and protection against salary diminution. After several years of delay, Congress enacted the Bankruptcy Amendments and Federal Judgeship Act of 1984 to fix the Marathon issue. The 1984 jurisdictional scheme for bankruptcy courts continues in force today.

That scheme vests bankruptcy jurisdiction in the first instance in the district courts. District courts may - but need not - refer cases and matters within the scope of such jurisdiction to the bankruptcy courts (which are constituted as "units" of the district courts). Bankruptcy jurisdiction is divided into two categories: "core" and "related to" jurisdiction. One distinguishing feature of these two types of jurisdiction is that bankruptcy courts may enter final orders with respect to matters within the scope of their core jurisdiction. These final orders are subject to appellate review by the district courts or bankruptcy appellate panels. In contrast, absent consent of the litigants, bankruptcy courts cannot enter final orders when exercising "related to" jurisdiction. Instead, they may issue proposed orders only, which are reviewed de novo by the district courts. In addition, there are certain types of matters that the district courts may not refer to bankruptcy courts. Moreover, the district courts retain the ability to withdraw the reference of matters referred to the bankruptcy courts. In these ways, and because bankruptcy judges are appointed by the circuit courts, Article III judges have a degree of control over the bankruptcy process.

Round 2 in the Supreme Court

In Stern v. Marshall, the Supreme Court began by clarifying that: (i) "core proceedings are those that arise in a bankruptcy case or under Title 11 [i.e., the Bankruptcy Code]"; (ii) there is no such thing as a "core" proceeding that does not arise under Title 11 or in a Title 11 case; and (iii) the list of core proceedings in section 157(b)(2) of Title 28 of the United States Code is illustrative. Section 157, among other examples, identifies "counterclaims by the estate against persons filing claims against the estate" as being within the bankruptcy court's core jurisdiction.

By its terms, 28 U.S.C. § 157(b)(2) entitled the California bankruptcy court to enter a final order on Vickie's counterclaim for tortious interference against Pierce as a core proceeding because Pierce had filed a proof of claim in the bankruptcy. Notwithstanding the statute, however, the Supreme Court held that the bankruptcy court could not constitutionally enter a final order on such a counterclaim because that would trespass upon the judicial power granted to Article III courts.

Article III, according to the Supreme Court, can neither serve its purpose nor protect the integrity of the judiciary if the other branches of government could confer "judicial Power" on entities outside Article III. The Court observed that, consequently, it has long held that Congress generally may not withdraw from judicial cognizance suits at common law, in equity or in admiralty. Rather, traditional common-law actions within the scope of federal jurisdiction must be heard by Article III judges. Given these principles, the Court determined that the bankruptcy court improperly exercised the "judicial Power of the United States" (just as the court did in Marathon) because it purported to enter a final judgment on a state common-law claim.

This trespass was not cured by the "public rights" exception, which recognizes that a category of cases exists involving public rights that Congress may constitutionally assign to "legislative" courts for resolution. While the Court acknowledged that its treatment of the public rights exception has not been entirely consistent, it concluded that this case could not fit within any of the varied formulations of the doctrine. Specifically, Vickie's common-law counterclaim: (i) does not flow from a federal statutory scheme and is not "completely dependent" upon adjudication of a claim created by federal law; (ii) is not a matter that can be pursued only by the grace of the other branches; (iii) is not the type of matter that historically could have been determined only by those branches; and (iv) is not limited to a particularized area of the law, such as the examination and determination of a specialized class of questions of fact assigned to an administrative agency as an expert in dealing with such matters.

The Court also rejected Vickie's argument that the bankruptcy court had authority to adjudicate her counterclaim because Pierce filed a proof of claim. The Court distinguished the cases of Katchen v. Landy, 382 U.S. 323 (1966), and Langenkamp v. Culp, 498 U.S. 42 (1990), and held that, unlike in those cases, Vickie's counterclaim did not arise from the bankruptcy itself and that it was not necessary to resolve the counterclaim in the claims-allowance process. Elsewhere, the Court also noted that Pierce did not truly consent to resolution of Vickie's counterclaim in the bankruptcy and that Pierce had nowhere else to go if he wished to recover on his claim.

Next, the Court dismissed the notion that bankruptcy courts are adjuncts of the district courts because, when a court issues a final order, it "is no mere adjunct of anyone." The Court also rejected practical arguments made by Vickie and amici (including the United States) regarding delays and increased costs if bankruptcy courts are unable to finally resolve compulsory counterclaims in the claims process. An unconstitutional law, the Court explained, cannot be saved simply because it is convenient or efficient. Further, the Court was not convinced that the practical consequences were as significant as suggested and characterized the question before it as narrow. Despite the contention that its decision "does not change all that much," however, the Court explained that it was nevertheless important - even slight encroachments on judicial power may threaten the integrity of the judiciary.

Justice Scalia issued a concurring opinion regarding the scope of the public rights exception. Of potential note, the justice indicated that he took no view on whether historical practice permits non-Article III judges "to process claims" against the bankruptcy estate.

Justice Breyer issued a dissenting opinion, joined by three other justices. In the minority's view, the Court's prior precedent mandated a more pragmatic approach to Article III questions. Applying this approach, the dissenters concluded that bankruptcy courts could adjudicate compulsory counterclaims without violating any constitutional separation-of-powers principle in light of several factors: (i) the nature of the non-Article III tribunal; (ii) the control exercised over that tribunal by Article III judges; (iii) the fact that Pierce consented to the tribunal by filing a proof of claim; and (iv) the nature and importance of the legislative purpose served. The dissenting justices also contended that the practical problems associated with the majority's holding were more significant and, by contrast, that any intrusion on the judiciary could only be considered de minimis. Accordingly, the minority would have upheld the bankruptcy court's core jurisdiction to issue a final order on Vickie's counterclaim.

Outlook

Stern v. Marshall raises several interesting questions. Is the minority's practical concern that the holding will cause inefficiencies well-founded? Or is the majority correct that the decision will not result in meaningful change in the courts' division of labor? Does the majority opinion - and Justice Scalia's concurrence - foreshadow additional litigation concerning the authority of the bankruptcy courts to enter final orders with respect to other matters that are statutorily core? If there is such litigation, will the Supreme Court's decision be limited to state-law counterclaims or will it have broader consequences for the scope of a bankruptcy court's authority? The answer to this last question may determine whether the majority or minority is correct as to the practical impact of the decision.