By Charles Lane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 1, 2006; A01
Anna Nicole Smith had her day in the Supreme Court yesterday. But to the palpable frustration of a media throng, she kept it low key.
Fully clothed in black, the 38-year-old former Playboy Playmate of the Year sat quietly in the back of the courtroom, listening intently to lawyers' arguments before exiting without comment through a side entrance.
Millions know her as the star of her own eponymous reality show on the E! cable channel, as a columnist for the National Enquirer and as a pitchwoman for TrimSpa diet pills.
But her persona yesterday was that of the Widow Marshall, aggrieved spouse of the late Texas oil plutocrat J. Howard Marshall II -- whom she wed in 1994, when she was 26 and he was 89. He died the following year. According to Anna Nicole, J. Howard intended to give her tens of millions of dollars from his estate, but his plan was fraudulently thwarted by his son, Pierce, who wanted the old man's money for himself. She has been fighting Pierce ever since.
Sober as always as they wrestled with the legal dispute at hand, the justices nevertheless seemed aware of stepping into an epic soap opera of the kind that could have happened only in Texas. The battle between Anna Nicole and Pierce "is quite a story," as Justice Stephen G. Breyer observed.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. noted that the case "involved a substantial amount of assets," presumably not intending any double entendre in the case of a woman who last year stripped to the waist at the MTV Australia Video Music Awards, revealing breasts covered with the MTV logo.
For his part, Pierce, 67, says that he did nothing wrong and that his stepmother is a frustrated gold digger who lost her case in a Texas court -- and is now shopping for a favorable new forum in the federal courts as if she were at Neiman Marcus.
For the Supreme Court, the nub of the problem is that different courts have come down on opposite sides of the case. A federal bankruptcy judge and federal district judge in California both ruled for Anna Nicole, with the latter awarding her $88 million in 2002. But a Texas probate court had ruled in favor of Pierce in 2001.
The San Francisco-based federal appeals court ruled last year that the Texas court's decision should trump because matters having to do with wills and estates, or probate, as the lawyers call it, belong exclusively in the state courts. Anna Nicole's claims are just a dressed-up attempt to refight a settled will contest, the appeals court ruled.
But based on their questions and comments yesterday, the justices seem to see things Anna Nicole's way.
Her claim that Pierce interfered with what she says was J. Howard's promised gift of a sizable inheritance in return for marrying him is a separate legal claim she could, indeed, take to federal court without violating the longstanding but vaguely defined general rule against federal court intervention in probate cases, several justices suggested.
"She's saying, 'I just want some money from this guy,' " Justice David H. Souter said, cutting to the chase. "That's all she's saying. 'I'll assume the will is valid; just give me some money.' "
Pierce has been supported in the suit by the National College of Probate Judges and the Philanthropy Roundtable, who worry about the implications of her arguments for their own interests.
But Anna Nicole has a powerful backer of her own, President Bush. The United States often must file probate-related claims in federal court, to collect taxes and such, a brief signed by Bush's solicitor general, Paul D. Clement, notes. The U.S. Trustee Program thinks a broad "probate exception" to federal court jurisdiction would gum up the bankruptcy system.
Anna Nicole wound up in federal court in the first place because she had to declare bankruptcy after losing a default judgment in an $830,000 sexual harassment suit brought in 1994 by her former nanny, Maria Antonia Cerrato. The case was later settled.
Cerrato was hired to take care of Anna Nicole's son, Daniel, whom she had in 1986 as the 19-year-old wife of a Texas fry cook named Billy Wayne Smith.
But we digress.
J. Howard Marshall II was a successful lawyer who had gone on to make a fortune in the Texas oil business. By 1991, though, he was a tired 86-year-old man, despondent over the death of his second wife and a longtime mistress. His chauffeur took him to Gigi's, a Houston strip club, to lift his spirits.
Vickie Lynn Smith danced for him there, and he fell immediately in love. He began showering her with expensive gifts and demanding that she marry him. Financed by J. Howard, Vickie Lynn Smith became Anna Nicole Smith, posed for Playboy, went on tour as a spokesmodel for Guess? Jeans and generally "achieved the level of international sex symbol," as federal Judge David O. Carter put it in his 2002 opinion on the case.
Meanwhile, Pierce, her much older stepson, was watching with mounting irritation as his father lavished his fortune, estimated by Forbes magazine to have reached as much as $1.6 billion, on the young woman Pierce referred to in private notes as "Miss Cleavage." (Pierce disputes the Forbes estimate.)
When Anna Nicole finally agreed to marry J. Howard in 1994, based in part on what she said was his promise to give her "half of everything I have," Pierce became even more alarmed, according to Carter's opinion.
J. Howard's estate consisted mainly of stock in the privately held Koch Industries. Leaving this to Anna Nicole would hurt Pierce's interests in two ways, Carter found. It would deny him the money and it would force out information about the true worth of the Koch stock, which Pierce was trying to minimize for purposes of a separate battle with the IRS.
No one but Anna Nicole has ever testified to J. Howard's verbal promise of a gift. But Carter found that J. Howard had made some preliminary efforts through his lawyers to draw up a new trust for Anna Nicole's benefit. Pierce was worried enough about the situation to send a private investigator to California to make sure Anna Nicole and J. Howard wouldn't draw up a new will while they were there.
Then, according to Carter's opinion, Pierce forged and altered documents, surreptitiously creating a new trust over which he alone would have control and which he alone would inherit. As the old man's health declined, he began systematically channeling his father's assets into it, Carter found.
"J. Howard had been duped," Carter wrote.
All of that is vigorously denied by Pierce's lawyers, who note that a jury reviewed all the same material and gave him a complete victory in Texas state court.
"No matter how you dice it or slice it, she is trying to make an end run around the probate court," Pierce lawyer G. Eric Brunstad told the justices yesterday.
But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, like most of her colleagues, didn't seem to buy that.
"You're suggesting an extraordinary setup where a state court can bar all the other courts from dealing with a similar and related issue. I've never heard of that," she said.