WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court shed its staid image Tuesday, giving stripper-turned Playboy model Anna Nicole Smith a new chance at a piece of the fortune of her 90-year-old late husband.
The court said it would hear arguments early next year as part of Smith's effort to collect as much as $474 million from the estate of J. Howard Marshall II. The oil tycoon married her in 1994 when he was 89 and she was 26.
The case promises to be the sexiest of the nine-month term which begins next week.
"She's very excited. She will be attending arguments, there's no question about that," Smith's lawyer, Howard K. Stern, said in a telephone interview from Vermont where the television reality star is filming a movie.
At issue for the court is a relatively mundane technical issue: when may federal courts hear claims that are also involved state probate proceedings. But the facts are eye-catching.
The 1993 Playmate of the Year and self-described "blonde bombshell" claims her husband promised her millions but that his scheming son cut her out of the estate.
The son, E. Pierce Marshall, said that a Texas court had found Smith's claim frivolous and that a jury determined he did nothing wrong. "This is one small step in a process and we intend to prevail so that my father's wishes can be honored," he said in a statement.
His father, one of Texas' wealthiest men, died in 1995, setting off a nasty legal fight.
An initial $474 million award for Smith was reduced to about $89 million, then thrown out altogether by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. The appeals court said that a Texas probate court's decision that the oilman's son was his sole heir should stand.
The appeals court decision, that federal courts in California never had jurisdiction, erased a lower court finding that she was entitled to compensatory and punitive damages on grounds that Marshall's son tried to keep her from receiving money from his father's estate.
Smith, whose real name is Vickie Lynn Marshall, had received more than $6 million in gifts from her late husband, but was not included in his will, justices were told by E. Pierce Marshall's attorneys.
Smith's attorneys told justices in a filing that Marshall's son "devotes nearly half his brief to manipulating the record to cast (Vickie) in a bad light," and that J. Howard Marshall intended to provide for his wife throughout her life.
The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case without awaiting the opinion of the new chief justice. The Senate is expected to vote on John Roberts' nomination later this week. The eight justices, including retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, picked that case to hear out of about 1,900 appeals.
The case is Vickie Lynn Marshall v. E. Pierce Marshall, 04-1544.