Early next year, Yale Law School Professor Eric Brunstad will travel to Washington, D.C. to argue in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. The courtroom will likely be packed and the media in full force, not because of the importance of the case, but because of Brunstad’s voluptuous, blonde opponent: Anna Nicole Smith.
Brunstad will represent E. Pierce Marshall, the son of Smith’s late-husband J. Howard Marshall III LAW ’31, in a case that will determine whether Smith is entitled to her millionaire-husband’s fortune. Smith, a former stripper and Playboy Playmate of the Year, married Marshall, an 89-year-old oil tycoon and one of Texas’ richest men, in 1994 at the age of 26. Since Marshall’s death in 1995, Smith and his son, E. Pierce Marshall, have waged a battle over a $474 million inheritance.
Brunstad became involved in the case when it moved to the appellate court. He said he is confident his client will come out on top because he believes Smith’s claims are invalid.
“Her views aren’t based on anything,” Brunstad said. “They are untrue and were already rejected by the probate court.”
Smith — who maintains that her late husband wanted to leave her his fortune, but his son cut her out of the estate plan — was originally awarded $474 million after her husband’s death, but the amount later was reduced to $89 million before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the monetary award altogether. The Appeals Court ruled that Marshall’s son should be the sole heir to his father’s fortune, as a Texas probate court had previously ruled.
Brunstad’s involvement in the case has generated interest among some of his students, who said the case is exciting but the subject matter is routine.
“There are sexy participants in the case, but not necessarily sexy legal issues,” said Christina Craige SOM ’06, one of Brunstad’s students.
Brunstad, who specializes in bankruptcy law, has taught at Yale since 1990 and is a junior partner at Bingham McCutchen L.L.P., a Hartford-based firm. The Smith case will not be the first of Brunstad’s first in front of the Supreme Court. He has argued in front of the High Court several times, most recently in a case regarding secure transactions two terms ago that was viewed by some of his students.
“A bunch of students came to watch me argue that case and afterwards we had lunch in D.C.,” Brunstad said. “It was the best feeling.”
Brunstad’s students say that their professor’s experience outside of academia has enhanced their Yale education — much of the reading material in his seminars comes from cases he has argued.
“He is really accessible and teaches class in an engaging way,” Matt Spence LAW ’06 said.
Craige, who took a seminar with Brunstad, as well as his class, “Secured Transactions,” also said Brunstad brings something different to the table.
“He is a very unique professor because he does have real-world experience,” she said. “He is dedicated to his craft and to making sure the subject matter translates to students.”
Both Craige and Spence said they hope to travel to Washington, D.C. this winter to watch Brunstad in action before the Supreme Court.
While the Smith case will likely bring Brunstad national fame, he is already considered one of the “stars” of the Law School faculty, Yale Law School professor Kenji Yoshino said.
“He is renowned for taking creative approaches to teaching well,” Yoshino said. “We have a teaching award here and he has routinely been one of the finalists.”
Arguing in front of the Supreme Court is a thrill, Brunstad said, and he is eager to go before the Court again.
“As you might imagine, you get a little nervous,” he said. “I even get butterflies in my stomach before I teach a class. When you argue in the Supreme Court, there are even more of those butterflies.”
Brunstad has met Smith on several occasions at legal proceedings in court. When asked to describe her, Brunstad laughed heartily before refusing to comment.
“I’m sure you can find plenty about her online,” he said.