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Ex-Playmate gets Supreme Court's ear

Anna Nicole Smith fights for right to sue for share of fortune

By Bill Mears
CNN

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Supreme Court appeared concerned Tuesday that the family of a Texas oil tycoon tried to keep part of a multimillion-dollar fortune from his widow, former stripper and Playboy Playmate Anna Nicole Smith.

Smith and E. Pierce Marshall, a son of her late husband, J. Howard Marshall II, have been fighting in court for more than a decade over a fortune estimated as high as $1.6 billion. The parties disagree over how much money is at stake.

"It's quite a story," Justice Stephen Breyer remarked.

The model, reality TV star and weight-loss company spokeswoman was in court Tuesday for arguments. ( Watch the son's spokesman call Smith "trailer park trash" -- 1:28)

Her arrival and departure created a media stir, with about two dozen cameras jockeying for position.

Several photographers were knocked to the ground as Smith entered the court through a side door. She said little, only "I'm sorry," in response to shouted questions.

When Smith left, cameras were stuck through the open window of her hired SUV.

Simple issue, colorful story

Despite the colorful details contained in the various briefs, the issue for the Supreme Court is fairly pedestrian. The justices will decide what role federal courts should play when state probate courts are hearing the same case.

State courts normally decide probate issues, involving wills and trusts. Federal courts hear bankruptcy issues. Smith, whose real name is Vickie Lynn, pressed her claims in both state and federal courts.

Although federal courts normally do not hear such disputes, there is no law mandating the hands-off approach.

A Texas state probate court dismissed Smith's claims, saying E. Pierce Marshall was the sole heir.

A U.S. bankruptcy judge in California initially awarded Smith $474 million, but that was later reduced to about $90 million. A federal appeals court eventually tossed out the entire award, saying the bankruptcy judge should never have heard the case.

Several justices expressed sharp skepticism that only the Texas state court could settle the dispute over the estate.

"That's not the way our system works," said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. "I've never heard a state probate court say you cannot bring a claim in another court."

The justices Tuesday seemed especially interested in several details of the dispute: whether documents were tampered with, whether Smith was kept from her husband's bedside as he was dying, and the amount of money she would receive if she were to win the case.

"'I just want some money from this guy.' That's all she's saying," Justice David Souter said. "Just give me the money I would have had."

Smith's attorney explained her claims.

"Here was a man who was 90 years old, who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and had already had a heart attack," attorney Kent Richland said.

"He was essentially on his deathbed, and assets were being passed to the son for things that would obviously never be paid, notes and annuities," Richland added.

"So all of that was wrongdoing that interfered with J. Howard Marshall's effort to complete this gift that he wanted to give to his wife."

May-December romance

He was a Yale-educated businessman who was 89 in 1994 when he married the then-26-year-old Texan. They had met a few years before at a strip club where she worked.

Marshall died a year after their wedding, but Smith, according to legal briefs filed with the high court, was not given a share of the estate in the will or separate trust.

"The problem is that the claim she is trying to pursue requires for its determination whether or not J. Howard intended to give her the assets," said Eric Brunstad, attorney for E. Pierce Marshall, the tycoon's son.

"But his estate plan demonstrates conclusively that he intended the assets to go somewhere else," he argued. "She says she just wants the money; the problem is that the money, again, under the estate plan, was designated to go to persons other than her."

Smith's lawyers claim that apart from the will and trust, Howard Marshall promised his young wife a share of assets earned while they were married.

Smith has since been engaged in a highly public, contentious fight with Marshall's son over a share of the money.

After the arguments, E. Pierce Marshall released a statement saying a "decision in our favor by the Supreme Court will go a long way toward finally putting an end to this frivolous lawsuit with claims that are totally fabricated."

He was not in the court for the arguments.

Reporters had a hard time observing Smith during the arguments.

Richland said afterward that she cried several times when her late husband's name was mentioned. But others seated nearby said they did not notice much reaction from her. Smith's adult son was also in attendance.

Smith was a model for Guess Jeans and was Playboy's 1993 "Playmate of the Year." In recent years, she has had a reality program on the E! cable network, "The Anna Nicole Show."

The justices will not decide how much money Smith will get, if any. They likely will only throw the case back to the appropriate court to ultimately decide, based on the justices' ruling.

A ruling is expected by late June.

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