Supreme Court to Weigh In on Anna Nicole Smith's Inheritance Case

By Charles Lane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Playboy Playmate of the Year. Reality TV Star. National Enquirer columnist. And now, to these titles, Anna Nicole Smith can add another: Supreme Court litigant.

The erstwhile Texas stripper's long legal battle for a share of her late billionaire husband's estate will apparently reach a climax before the justices, who announced yesterday that they have accepted her request to review a federal appeals court ruling last year that gave all the money to the man's son.

At issue is the scope of the probate exception to federal jurisdiction. In other words, was a federal appeals court correct when it ruled last year that only state courts have authority over disputed estates?

But while undoubtedly important, this knotty legal issue may be overshadowed by certain other aspects of the complex case.

Start with the fact that Smith was just 26 -- and a former day-shift dancer at a strip club -- when she married 89-year-old billionaire industrialist J. Howard Marshall in 1994.

Marshall died the next year. Smith, whose real name is Vickie Lynn Marshall, claims that he promised her half of his $1.6 billion fortune before that. But, she says, Marshall's son E. Pierce Marshall illegally thwarted his father's wishes.

Pierce Marshall denies that, and a Texas state jury and judge have sided with him, cutting Smith out of the estate entirely.

But federal judges in California, brought into the case in 1996 when Smith filed for bankruptcy under federal law in that state, took a kinder view of Smith's claim.

A bankruptcy court determined that she was entitled to $475 million, an award later reduced by U.S. District Judge David O. Carter to $88.5 million in damages from Pierce Marshall.

Carter, detailing the lavish gifts of cash, real estate and jewelry that Marshall had given Smith, found that the billionaire always intended to give Smith a huge amount of money from his estate, even though only Smith recalled ever hearing him say so.

"Their lives were intertwined in need, driven by greed and lust," Carter wrote. "Nevertheless, the Court is convinced of his love for her. J. Howard referred to Vickie as the 'light of my life,' and the lady that saved his life. His relationship with her provided the happiest moments of his last few years. . . . There is no question that he showered her with gifts, that he sought to protect her and provide for her."

Last year, however, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, based in San Francisco, threw out Carter's ruling, declaring that only Texas's courts have jurisdiction.

The case is Marshall v. Marshall, No. 04-1544. Oral arguments are expected in January, and a decision is likely by July.

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