HOUSTON – Former stripper turned weight-loss promoter Anna Nicole Smith faced the scales of justice on Tuesday, a Supreme Court showdown with millions of dollars on the line.
The legal issue, stemming from a nasty family feud over the fortune of Smith's late husband, J. Howard Marshall II, turns on whether state or federal courts have jurisdiction in the matter.
Smith, the buxom spokeswoman for a diet product company, 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.
Smith married the oil tycoon in 1994 when he was 89 and she was a 26-year-old topless dancer in Texas. Marshall died the following year. His fortune has been estimated at as much as $1.6 billion.
The high court was hearing arguments in the case, and the eventual ruling will determine whether Smith gets another chance at part of Marshall's estate.
The justices are dealing with a technical question: When may federal courts hear claims that involve state probate proceedings? Smith lost in Texas state courts, which found that E. Pierce Marshall was the sole heir to his father's estate.
Smith, whose legal name is Vickie Lynn Marshall, planned to attend the argument.
"Most people will have a double take," said Edward Morrison, a former Supreme Court clerk who specializes in bankruptcy law at Columbia University. "It raises the novelty level and makes it somewhat more fun."
Douglas Baird, a bankruptcy expert at the University of Chicago, said: "I'd suspect some justices haven't the slightest idea who Anna Nicole is."
The Bush administration is siding with Smith as a technical matter, arguing that the justices should protect federal court jurisdiction in such disputes.
Marshall showered Smith, a former Playboy model, with $6.6 million in gifts that included two homes, $2.8 million in jewelry and $700,000 in clothes, and she contends that he also promised her half his estate.
Pierce Marshall said various wills and trusts his father prepared over the years made him the only heir.
A federal court ruled in 2002 that Smith was entitled to compensatory and punitive damages because the younger Marshall altered, destroyed and falsified documents to try to keep her from receiving money from his father's estate.
The case is Marshall v. Marshall, 04-1544.