By Bill Mears
Adjust font size:
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Actress and model Anna Nicole Smith can add another line to her colorful resume: a winner in the U.S. Supreme Court.
The justices Monday unanimously ruled Smith, who went by her real name -- Vickie Lynn Marshall -- in legal papers, can continue her fight to claim a large part of her late husband's vast business holdings.
Smith, a former Playboy pinup and stripper, and one of the late oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall's sons have been fighting in court for more than a decade over a fortune estimated as much as $1.6 billion.
The justices did not decide how much money Smith would get, if any. Her victory means the case is thrown back to a lower court. She has yet to collect on any part of the disputed estate.
Smith's appellate attorney, Kent Richland, said his client was pleased with the outcome.
"Anna Nicole Smith's claim existed years before her husband died and years before thoughts of probate even began," he said in a written statement. "The court has ratified her position."
"It's quite a story," remarked Justice Stephen Breyer when the case was argued in February. Smith's appearance in court caused a minor media sensation, with cameras jockeying for position as she entered and left the building.
Despite the colorful details contained in the legal briefs, the issue for the Supreme Court was fairly pedestrian. The justices ruled that federal courts do have a role, however limited, when state probate courts are hearing the same case.
State courts usually decide probate issues involving wills and trusts. Federal courts hear bankruptcy issues.
The so-called "probate exception" normally keeps federal courts from hearing such disputes, but there is no congressional law mandating the hands-off approach.
"The probate exception does not bar federal courts from adjudicating matters outside those confines and otherwise within federal jurisdiction," wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for the court. She concluded a federal appeals court improperly kept Smith from pursuing her case.
Smith, a model, reality TV star and diet company spokeswoman, went to both state and federal courts to press her claims.
The Supreme Court did not delve into matters raised in oral arguments: whether document tampering happened, whether Smith was kept from her husband's bedside as he was dying, and how the money should be divided.
Smith's attorneys claim that apart from the will and trust, Howard Marshall promised his young wife a share of assets earned while they were married.
The Yale-educated businessman was 89 in 1994 when he married the then-26-year-old Texan. They had met a few years earlier at a strip club where she worked.
Marshall died a year after the 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.
Courts have disagreed
"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. 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," he told the court.
State and federal courts have disagreed over whether Smith should receive any part of the estate.
A U.S. bankruptcy judge initially awarded her $474 million, which later was reduced to about $90 million. A federal appeals court eventually dismissed the entire award.
A state probate court also dismissed her claims, saying E. Pierce Marshall was the sole heir.
"I will continue to fight to clear my name in California federal court," said Pierce Marshall in a statement released shortly after Monday's ruling. "That is a promise that Vickie [Smith] and her lawyers can take to the bank."
Smith was a model for Guess Jeans and was Playboy's 1993 "Playmate of the Year." More recently, she had a reality program, "The Anna Nicole Show," on the E! cable network.
Anna Nicole Smith created a stir when the Supreme Court heard her case in February.