Anna Nicole Smith (Photo: Tinseltown/Shutterstock.com)
For the better part of 20 years, the fight over the estate of late billionaire oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall has remained a fixture on Mike Wood’s docket, a case that unwittingly turned the once little-known Houston probate jurist into the “Anna Nicole Smith” judge. And Wood has finally had enough of it.
The story of the former Playboy magazine model’s attempts to get a piece of Marshall’s fortune after a brief marriage to the elderly billionaire brought international media coverage to Wood’s court. Wood later rejected Smith’s claim to the fortune and awarded it to Marshall’s son E. Pierce Marshall—a 2001 decision that ultimately survived two appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court.
After E. Pierce Marshall’s death in 2006, the litigation continued in Wood’s court. And in 2015, Preston Marshall, E. Pierce Marshall’s son, filed a separate action before Wood contesting his access to the Marshall family trusts.
While Wood repeatedly ordered the parties to mediation, the litigation seemingly had no end. And by January, Wood was literally begging lawyers to recuse him from the case so he could get on with his life.
“I am going off the handle officially. I am tired of this case. I beg you to recuse me,” Wood said during a hearing in which Preston Marshall filed a last-minute temporary restraining order against his mother, Elaine Marshall, who controls the trust. “I beg you to recuse me. I don’t want to deal with you people anymore.”
At another point in the hearing, Wood said: “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.”
Lawyers for Elaine Marshall took Wood up on his offer and filed a handwritten motion to recuse him during the Jan. 11 hearing. Wood told the lawyers he didn’t think the recusal motion complied with the rules and took it under advisement, but signed the son’s restraining order.
Elaine Marshall filed a writ of mandamus at Houston’s 14th Court of Appeals alleging the temporary restraining order was void because it was signed after a motion to recuse was filed against Wood—a move that usually stops a judge from taking further action in a case.
And while the writ was pending at the appellate court, Wood finally decided to recuse himself from the case Jan. 18. On Jan. 24, the court granted the mandamus relief, voiding the restraining order, which will now be heard by Harris County Probate Court Judge Christine Butts.
“It’s not that a big a deal. It’s just that I wasn’t accomplishing anything,” Wood said in an interview about his decision to step off the case that has plagued his docket for two decades. “And it got to the point that my irritation wasn’t helping anything. And if I can’t get it resolved, you know . . . but this one, it’s not going to be resolved I don’t think anytime soon.”
Wood said he is not comfortable with the Marshall case being part of his legacy as a judge, noting that he’s prouder of other aspects of his career in including service as president of a probate judges association and helping draft new probate rules in Texas.
“I’ve resolved hundreds of estate disputes,” Wood said. “The fact that I couldn’t resolve that case, I don’t want my legacy to be: ‘He couldn’t resolve the Marshall case.’ I resolved it many times.”
Russell Post, a partner with Houston’s Beck Redden who represents Elaine Marshall on appeal, said his client is pleased with the 14th Court’s decision and looks forward to the resolution of the litigation.
And Max Tribble, a partner in Houston’s Susman Godfrey who represents Preston Marshall, said he was sad to see Wood become so frustrated with the case that he recused himself.
“It’s too bad because he had so much knowledge of this case,” Tribble said. “But we’re confident in the new judge. We’re sure she’ll be fair.”
Rusty Hardin, a prominent Houston attorney who once represented the Marshall estate in the case, was wistful about Wood’s decision to step off the case. It was in Wood’s courtroom in 2001 that Hardin cross examined Smith about her testimony, inquiring whether the sobbing B-list movie actress was prompted to yell “Screw you, Rusty!” because she had been taking acting lessons.
Smith died in 2007 of a prescription drug overdose. Hardin and Wood later became friends and appeared at legal education events to discuss how they handled the high-profile case.
“Wood was an incredibly patient, even-handed judge throughout that ligation. I hate to see him get out of any litigation because he’s a good judge,” Hardin said. “I can understand his desire to get out because it’s always been contentious. He must feel like he’s in ‘Groundhog Day.’ ”
Wood said he plans to serve out the end of his term and will retire from the bench in 2018.
“I’ve really had a fairly successful career as a probate judge. It’s not an easy job, it’s not a hard job,” Wood said. “Like my wife says, ‘It’s like family court after you’re dead.’ ”
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