WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court appeared ready Tuesday to bless Playboy Playmate Anna Nicole Smith's pursuit of a piece of her late husband's oil fortune. The court waded into an 11-year family feud over the estate of J. Howard Marshall II, who died at age 90 after a brief marriage to Smith.
The case is dominated by themes of sex, greed and deception.
"It's quite a story," Justice Stephen Breyer marveled.
Marshall's youngest son, E. Pierce Marshall, claims that he is the sole heir and that Smith's legal fight is dead, because she lost in a Texas probate court.
Justices appeared unwilling to buy that.
Smith, a former stripper known for her flashy, cleavage-revealing outfits, watched from near the back of the court, dressed in black. Her lawyers said she was in tears during part of the argument when justices discussed her late husband.
Justices tread delicately on the subject matter.
Chief Justice John Roberts said the case involved "a substantial amount of assets," referring to the fortune of Smith's husband of 14 months. The estate was estimated at as much as $1.6 billion.
The court's other new member, Samuel Alito, remained silent as did Justice Clarence Thomas.
Otherwise, however, it was a lively debate that included many references to Smith and her plight, although justices referred to her by her given name, Vickie Lynn.
Breyer said there was evidence that the will was forged and that the son hired private detectives to keep Smith away from her elderly husband's sick bed. She was a 26-year-old topless dancer, divorced with a son, when she and Marshall were married. One of her husband's nurses testified that Smith bared her breasts to the bedridden man as part of her effort to get an inheritance.
Justice David Souter distilled her claims in only a few words: "I just want some money from this guy."
Her late husband, a widower with a penchant for strippers, showered Smith with gifts including two homes, jewelry and clothes.
In addition, she contends that he promised her half his estate.
G. Eric Brunstad Jr., the lawyer for the son, said that a Texas court investigated her claims during a five-month trial and rejected them. He said that Smith had no grounds to bring a separate claim in federal court in California.
He faced tough comments from the justices who seemed hesitant to limit the federal courts' reach.
"That's just not the way our system works," said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the only woman justice who was especially feisty in her questioning.
"I don't see your logic," Souter told Brunstad.
The case requires the court to clarify when federal courts may hear claims that involve state probate proceedings.
About two dozen photographers swarmed Smith and her attorney as they left through a side door of the court building after the hearing, then sped away in a black SUV. She declined to answer questions.
Earlier, when she arrived, several photographers were knocked to the ground in their zeal to get a picture of Smith, dressed in a knee-length dress, high heels and black sunglasses.
Smith, the 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.
Justices seemed ready to overturn the appeals court, although a Supreme Court victory now would not guarantee that Smith will receive any money.
Pierce Marshall said in a statement after the argument that a "decision to return the case to the lower courts still leaves us with numerous other grounds."
"If necessary, each of those remaining grounds will be pursued vigorously," he said.
The case is Marshall v. Marshall, 04-1544.