Anna Nicole Smith, the big blond with the enormous breasts, has been dead for a decade. Her 90-year-old oil billionaire husband of 14 months, J. Howard Marshall II, has been ashes for more than 20 years. (She never picked up the urn.) But the fight over Marshall's estate is still going strong.
In fact, it's been dragging out for so long that it finally caused Probate Judge Mike Wood, a man who has overseen family quarrels severe enough to turn litigious for decades, to say he's done. "My job is to reach decisions, to get these cases resolved," Wood, who is slated to retire at the end of 2018, says. "I decided I'm not going to be able to resolve this at all, so I'm done."
The case over who had the right to J. Howard Marshall's fortune — both the Playboy model and J. Howard Marshall's oldest son, J. Howard Marshall III, had been left out of the will in favor of the younger son, E. Pierce Marshall, as we noted in our 1999 cover story "Larger Than Life" — had already been stuck in Wood's court for six years when Wood decided to honor Marshall's will and give the estate to Pierce in 2001.
If Wood thought he was done with the Marshall family, finished being the "Anna Nicole Smith" judge in a three-ring media circus, though, no such luck.
Since Wood's 2001 decision, the case has bounced through the state and federal court systems as judges reviewed whether Wood's court or a California bankruptcy court had the right to decide who should get a portion of the estate. It has sprouted other lawsuits from the Marshall family that have also been filed in Wood's probate court. If anything, Wood only got more deeply mired in the case as the years have worn on.
He ordered the family to mediate, but they could never reach an agreement. Pierce Marshall, the son Wood had decided should inherit the estate, abruptly died of an infection in 2005. Smith died in 2007, although the executor of her estate took up the case on her behalf after that.
When Pierce Marshall died, his widow, Elaine Marshall, took up the case, which was heard twice by the U.S. Supreme Court. The second time, in 2010, the high court decided the case belonged in Wood's jurisdiction. That effectively ended the claims from the Smith estate, but not the case itself.
In 2015 Preston Marshall, Pierce Marshall's son, filed another suit, also in Wood's court, over how the Marshall family trusts are distributed. There are currently three open cases over J. Marshall Howard II's wealth at this point, all of them in Wood's court. And the Marshall estate has now been a fact of life for Wood and his staff for more than 20 years.
Earlier this month, though, Wood finally had enough. During a hearing in which Preston Marshall had filed a temporary restraining order against his mother, Elaine Marshall, who now controls the trust, Wood got honest with the family. "I am going off the handle officially. I am tired of this case. I beg you to recuse me," Wood said, according to Texas Lawyer. "I beg you to recuse me. I don't want to deal with you people anymore."
And he really wasn't kidding, which he reiterated in court. "I'm honestly — I'm trying to get recused. Because I can't — it is not fair to me, my staff, my life to have to deal with you people who do not want to resolve this case."
Elaine Marshall and her lawyers took him at his word, filing a handwritten motion asking the judge to recuse himself. Wood reviewed the note and found that it, unfortunately for him, wasn't enough reason to actually remove himself.
He signed Preston Marshall's requested temporary restraining order against Preston Marshall's mother, Elaine, instead.
So Elaine Marshall's lawyers immediately filed with Houston's 14th Court of Appeals that the restraining order was no good since it was filed after a writ asking the judge to recuse himself had been submitted. The case was pending before the 14th Court of Appeals when Wood, maybe realizing that it's best to seize your chance at happiness while it's there to be got, maybe just knowing that he really could not judge this case any longer, went ahead and recused himself.
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The 14th Court of Appeals lifted the restraining order. The case over the restraining order will now be heard by Probate Judge Christine Butts.
Meanwhile, Wood observed to Texas Lawyer that it would be easy for people to look at this case and just say that he failed to resolve it, but that isn't what happened here. "I don't want my legacy to be: 'He couldn't resolve the Marshall case.' I resolved it many times.''
Someday the Marshall case might actually be closed, but either way it sounds fair that it is no longer Wood's job to close it.
"I just got tired of it," Wood says.