Supreme Court hints at victory for Playboy playmate

Wednesday, March 1, 2006

WASHINGTON -- Playboy Playmate Anna Nicole Smith's date with the Supreme Court had all the trappings of a soap opera: tears, a family feud and lots of money.

And justices hinted that the 11-year fight was far from over.

The court will decide in a few months whether to renew Smith's claim to a piece of the estate of Texas oilman J. Howard Marshall II, who died at age 90 after a brief marriage to Smith.

The case pits Smith, 38, against her former stepson, 67-year-old E. Pierce Marshall.

Both were in court.

Smith, glamorous in a black dress with her long blond hair loose, wept as justices discussed her former husband.

Pierce Marshall, wearing a suit and accompanied by his wife, said afterward: "If I have to fight this for another 10 years I'm ready to do it."

Justices tread delicately on the subject matter.

Chief Justice John Roberts said the case involved "a substantial amount of assets," referring to the fortune of Smith's husband of 14 months. The estate was estimated at as much as $1.6 billion.

The court's other new member, Samuel Alito, remained silent as did Justice Clarence Thomas.

Otherwise, however, it was a lively debate that included many references to Smith and her plight, although justices referred to her by her given name, Vickie Lynn.

Justice Stephen Breyer said there was evidence that J. Howard Marshall's will was forged and that the son hired private detectives to keep Smith away from her elderly husband's sick bed. She was a 26-year-old topless dancer, divorced with a son, when she and Marshall were married. One of her husband's nurses testified that Smith bared her breasts to the bedridden man as part of her effort to get an inheritance.

"It's quite a story," Breyer marveled.

Justice David Souter distilled her claims in only a few words: "I just want some money from this guy."

Her late husband, a widower with a penchant for strippers, showered Smith with gifts including two homes, jewelry and clothes.

In addition, she contends that he promised her half his estate.

G. Eric Brunstad Jr., the lawyer for the son, said that a Texas court investigated her claims during a five-month trial and rejected them. He said that Smith had no grounds to bring a separate claim in federal court in California.

He faced tough comments from the justices who seemed hesitant to limit the federal courts' reach.

"That's just not the way our system works," said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the only woman justice who was especially feisty in her questioning.

"I don't see your logic," Souter told Brunstad.

The case requires the court to clarify when federal courts may hear claims that involve state probate proceedings.

About two dozen photographers swarmed Smith and her attorney as they left through a side door of the court building after the hearing, then sped away in a black SUV. She declined to answer questions.

Earlier, when she arrived, several photographers were knocked to the ground in their zeal to get a picture of Smith, dressed in a knee-length dress, high heels and black sunglasses.

Smith was awarded $474 million by a federal bankruptcy judge. That was later reduced by a federal district judge and then thrown out altogether by a federal appeals court on jurisdictional grounds.

Justices seemed ready to overturn the appeals court, although a Supreme Court victory now would not guarantee that Smith will receive any money.

Pierce Marshall said in a statement after the argument that a "decision to return the case to the lower courts still leaves us with numerous other grounds."

"If necessary, each of those remaining grounds will be pursued vigorously," he said.

The case is Marshall v. Marshall, 04-1544.

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