WASHINGTON — Playboy Playmate Anna Nicole Smith’s date with the Supreme Court had all the trappings of a soap opera: tears, a family feud and lots of money.
And justices hinted that the 11-year fight was far from over.
The court will decide in a few months whether to renew Smith’s claim to a piece of the estate of Texas oilman J. Howard Marshall II, who died at age 90 after a brief marriage to Smith.
The case pits Smith, 38, against her former stepson, 67-year-old E. Pierce Marshall.
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Both were in court.
Smith, glamorous in a black dress with her long blond hair loose, wept as justices discussed her former husband.
Pierce Marshall, wearing a suit and accompanied by his wife, said afterward: “If I have to fight this for another 10 years I’m ready to do it.”
Justices treaded delicately on the subject matter.
As much as $1.6 billion in assets
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.
Justice Stephen Breyer said there was evidence that J. Howard Marshall’s 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.
“It’s quite a story,” Breyer marveled.
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.
Suing for damages
The legal issue has been presented by lawyers for Marshall’s son as a question of whether state or federal courts have jurisdiction in the matter. They have argued the case belongs in the Texas state court, which determined J. Howard Marshall’s estate belonged to E. Pierce Marshall.
But the nation’s highest court appeared to see it differently on Tuesday, according to NBC News’ Pete Williams.
Smith’s lawyers argued on Tuesday the case is actually a lawsuit for damages. Smith claims lawyers for E. Pierce Marshall tried to cover up legal documents that concealed parts of J. Howard Marshall’s will that designated money for her.
According to Smith, part of Marshall’s will was altered after he signed it. She alleges three pages were inserted into it after Marshall signed the trust, MSNBC Chief Washington Correspondent Norah O’Donnell reported on Tuesday.
The eventual ruling, which will determine whether Smith gets another chance at part of Marshall’s estate, is not expected for another few months, according to NBC News.
Rough day for son's lawyer
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.
$474 million initially given to Smith
Smith 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.
NBC News' Pete Williams, MSNBC's Chief Washington Correspondent Norah O'Donnell and The Associated Press contributed to this report.