Published May 01, 2006
Thanks to the Supreme Court, Anna Nicole Smith may get a Texas-size fairytale ending.
The justices unanimously ruled on Monday that the former Playboy Playmate and reality TV star could continue to fight for part of her late husband's oil fortune in federal court, overturning a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judgment that a federal bankruptcy court that awarded her millions did not have the jurisdiction to do so.
Smith, 38, has been battling her 67-year-old stepson, E. Pierce Marshall, for a piece of oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall II's estate, estimated at as much as $1.6 billion. The elder Marshall died in 1995 at the age of 90.
Smith, then known by her real name, Vickie Lynn Hogan, first met her husband while working as a topless dancer at a Houston strip club. In a storyline straight out of "Dallas," Marshall wooed the divorced single mother, paying for breast enlargement surgery and plying her with expensive gifts. They married in June 1994; he was 89 and she was 26.
Marshall died 13 months later. Instead of naming Smith in his will, Marshall instructed his attorneys to create a "catch-all" trust for her. Marshall's son, according to the federal bankruptcy court in California, sabotaged the trust and even forged documents in order to keep his father's fortune to himself.
The high court's opinion also noted that the family feud has been nasty, beset by accusations that E. Pierce Marshall "engaged in forgery, fraud, and overreaching to gain control of his father's assets" and Smith defamed her former stepson.
In overturning the bankruptcy court's ruling, the Supreme Court found the 9th Circuit did so under an overly broad interpretation of the probate exception, the longstanding principle of limiting federal jurisdiction over domestic matters.
Writing the unanimous opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that the probate exception is a "judicially created" doctrine borne of "misty understandings of English legal history." In other words, nowhere in the Constitution is the probate exception written.
Ginsburg also noted that the bankruptcy court had ruled on Smith's tortious interference claim against E. Pierce Marshall — that is, his interference with his father's intended gift to her. The 9th Circuit was wrong, she wrote, to apply the probate exception automatically to a case that just happened to involve a contested will or estate but was not actually about the contested will or estate.
E. Pierce Marshall vowed Monday to "fight to clear my name in California federal court" and "to uphold my father's estate plan."
"The fact that my father gave Vicki [sic] more than $7 million is absolute proof that no one was interfering in his business," Marshall said in a statement released after the court's ruling. "If Vicki [sic] had just acted responsibly she would be financially set for life."
Smith, the court noted, is not in the financial clear just yet. While the high court's decision to overturn the 9th Circuit means that a favorable finding still stands — a district court affirmed the bankruptcy court but lowered Smith's award to $88.5 million — a Texas court deciding Smith's original claim found she was entitled to nothing.
So far, Smith has received nothing from Marshall's estate, although before his death Marshall showered Smith with $6.6 million in gifts that included two homes, expensive jewelry and clothes. She contends that he also promised her half his estate.
Smith's case brought rare attention from entertainment news shows and tabloids to the Supreme Court. The former Guess? Jeans spokeswoman turned diet pill hawker attended oral arguments in late February, sparking a stampede of photojournalists and a fakeout to exit from the court.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.