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Monday, August 14, 2006

Ind. Decisions - 7th Circuit ruling today involves the "probate exemption" to federal courts' jurisdiction

Lois Jones v. Thomas Brennan, et al. is a 9-page opinion out of Illinois, written by Circuit Judge Posner. Some quotes (most cites omitted):

The judge dismissed the suit on the pleadings on the authority of the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. This was a mistake. The doctrine, which forbids a federal court other than the Supreme Court to entertain an appeal from a decision by a state court, is inapplicable when the plaintiff is not attacking a state court judgment. * * *

There is another jurisdictional obstacle to consider, however, and that is the “probate exception” to the federal courts’ jurisdiction. As recently clarified by the Supreme Court, the exception “reserves to state probate courts the probate or annulment of a will and the administration of a decedent’s estate; it also precludes federal courts from endeavoring to dispose of property that is in the custody of a state probate court. But it does not bar federal courts from adjudicating matters outside those confines and otherwise within federal jurisdiction.” Marshall v. Marshall, 126 S. Ct. 1735, 1748 (2006). The probate exception is usually invoked in diversity cases, and the courts are divided over its applicability to federal-question cases, such as this case. We think it applicable.

It used to be thought that the probate exception, like the domestic-relations exception, which denies federal jurisdiction to grant a divorce or exercise the other characteristic powers of a domestic-relations court, and is also usually invoked in diversity cases, was of constitutional dignity. We echoed that view in Dragan v. Miller, supra, 679 F.2d at 714. The thought was that Article III of the Constitution, in limiting the judicial power of the United States to cases and controversies, had confined the jurisdiction of the federal courts to “matters that were the traditional concern of the courts at Westminster.” Coleman v. Miller, 307 U.S. 433, 460 (1939) (Frankfurter, J., concurring). Probate and domestic relations were handled by the English ecclesiastical courts rather than by the royal courts (both the common law courts and the Chancery court) at Westminster.

The accuracy of this historical analysis has been questioned. The dominant modern view is that the exceptions are of statutory rather than constitutional origin (except insofar as some matters within the probate or domestic-relations jurisdictions do not involve disputes and therefore are not cases or controversies), and is agnostic about the accuracy of its remote historical underpinnings.

BTW, Marshall v. Marshall was the Supreme Court case last term involving former Playboy model Anna Nicole Smith.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on August 14, 2006 04:13 PM
Posted to Ind. (7th Cir.) Decisions