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Anna Nicole Smith --The Bankruptcy That Keeps on Giving

posted by Bob Lawless

It can really bug me when blogs have posts that are just a naked attempt to draw traffic to their site. These posts always are sure to contain a few words that will attract the attention of search engine users seeking porn or the usual titillating web sites. Seemingly random references to celebrities such as Brittany Spears, Rihanna, or Paris Hilton will be put into the blog. And, worse of all, these naked attempts at self-promotion will use word repetition and appear near the beginning of the web page to optimize their search engine placement. Therefore, I was not surprised to find references to the 15-year old bankruptcy case of the late Anna Nicole Smith, who was often described as sexy and buxom.

On a more serious note, it was somewhat puzzling to see references to this old bankruptcy case. It was dredged up for an AP story that was sourced to "newly released government files" obtained by a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request directed to the Department of Justice. The article cites to "the bankruptcy examiner's report." I don't give a rat's pa-too-tee about the contents of the report, but I wondered about the whole FOIA thing. If this was a bankruptcy examiner's report, wouldn't it be part of the public court record? Why did they need to use FOIA? If the court ordered the report filed under seal or otherwise made the report unavailable, then why can a FOIA request effectively circumvent the court order? Or, was this not a bankruptcy examiner's report in the technical sense of the term and, if so, what was it?

There is actually a serious policy point here. Bankruptcy courts need to be available for public scrutiny for all the same reasons all of our courts should be available for public scrutiny. When judges take measures to keep certain documents or proceedings private, it should done sparingly and only for compelling reasons. Actually, given the content of the report, it does sound like there would have been compelling reasons to seal this report out of privacy concerns, but I don't know if that is what happened. If anyone has more specifics, please report in the comments.

There once was a case from Nebraska (I think -- being admittedly too lazy to go look up the citation) where someone tried to file an entire bankruptcy under seal, reasoning it would be an embarrassment for the local community to know he filed bankruptcy. The court, correctly in my view, rejected the request, reasoning that bankruptcy is a public act. I've used this case in my courses as a departure for a discussion about what sort of information we should expect bankruptcy filers to reveal.

Changing the subject, I do wonder whether my tongue-in-cheek introductory paragraph will result in any noticeable increase in blog traffic. I'll report back if it does. My sense is that search engines have gotten too sophisticated for that sort of cheap trick to work. When Anna Nicole Smith's bankruptcy made it up to the Supreme Court, I signed an amicus brief supporting her side of the case. When I went into law teaching, supporting Anna Nicole Smith in an amicus brief was among the least likely things I expected to do. And, for those who don't remember, she won her case in the Supreme Court.

Postscript--I did not check to make sure that "pa-too-tee" was spelled correctly, although I believed I used the Latin variation. I did, however, check "buxom." (Yes, I can actually be that dumb.) And, I kid you not, when you put the word "buxom" into Google, you get a picture of Anna Nicole Smith .

Comments

Jut from my own experience with FTC FOIAs, Professor, I'd be curious to find out just how much of the documents - especially anything actually available from a court docket - was redacted. In the FOIA that I had with the FTC re: USA/Curry v. Fairbanks, the FTC chose to redact actual court files including, among other things, Ms. Curry's name and the docket numbers. I wonder if DOJ handles FOIAs any differently.

lol... love this post... We have had certain items sealed but very few and far between. Usually they are things like settlements on adv. for violation of discharge or stay where the other party wanted to keep the settlement sealed and viewed and approved only by the BK judge.

TX BK judge ruled that she could inherit from the will but probate later said no because of an influence issue and supreme court said BK judge did have jurisdiction and authority to rule on what normally was a probate matter right??? Something like that ????

What I have been saying (lately) is that if Probate, IRS tax matters, Judgments, Contracts etc... are part of a financial body then Bankruptcy would be surgery on almost every part of that financial body.

You almost lost me with the initial paragraph, but you certainly did your due diligence on searching for "buxom."

Recently one of the listserves that I subscribe to has had several posts about debtors in law enforcement who wanted to keep their address out of the public record. One poster said that he had a client who had been sued by someone on death row, and the client wanted to keep his address private. This debtor doesn't own any property.

Another said that his client wanted to keep his address private, as far as I can tell, because he was in law enforcement, without stating any particular reason. Apparently in the jurisidction where this debtor lives, if you are in a trial you can't ask a law enforcement officer where he or she lives. This debtor is trying to save his home.

Reactions?

As an aside, why anyone thinks that you can keep a home address private if you own your home in your own name, as opposed to in a land trust, is beyond me.

Ya I was about to say... deed records at the county usually have that stuff online.. depending on the county that is... I can see a US Marshal or FBI agent or something like that but claims coming in especially on a home will have a name and address. You would have to seal the whole case and then how do you get creditors proper notice and access to the case?

I have seen perhaps two cases where addresses were not included and these were both situations involving battered spouses.

They were both no asset Chapter 7s that involved perhaps a letter to the UST.

One was living in a shelter.

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  • As a public service, the University of Illinois College of Law operates Bankr-L, an e-mail list on which bankruptcy professionals can exchange information. Bankr-L is administered by one of the Credit Slips bloggers, Professor Robert M. Lawless of the University of Illinois. Although Bankr-L is a free service, membership is limited only to persons with a professional connection to the bankruptcy field (e.g., lawyer, accountant, academic, judge). To request a subscription on Bankr-L, click here to visit the page for the list and then click on the link for "Subscribe." After completing the information there, please also send an e-mail to Professor Lawless (rlawless@illinois.edu) with a short description of your professional connection to bankruptcy. A link to a URL with a professional bio or other identifying information would be great.

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