Anna Nicole Smith, the former Playboy Playmate and actress, won a victory in the Supreme Court today against her deceased husband's estate. In doing so, Smith also made a significant impact in the highly technical world of probate law. Although the court's decision awards her no money, it gives her the opportunity to have a federal court hear her claims.
Smith, whose real name is Vickie Lynn Marshall, married oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall in 1994 when he was 89 and she was 26. The marriage ended nearly 14 months later when Marshall died.
Although she was not mentioned in his will, Smith argued that she was entitled to some of her former husband's estate -- estimated to be in the billions. Smith and her husband's son, E. Pierce Marshall, engaged in legal warfare that caused the case to move forward in both state and federal courts.
While a Texas probate court ruled against Smith, federal courts in California found in her favor when she argued that E. Pierce Marshall had illegally interfered with her inheritance.
When the case moved to the Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, Smith was dealt a stunning blow. The court ruled that federal courts could have no jurisdiction in the case. This meant that the Texas probate court which had ruled against Smith had exclusive jurisdiction over the case.
At this point, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case to "resolve the apparent confusion" among courts on the jurisdictional issue.
In a victory for Smith, the high court found that indeed she could bring her case to the federal courts because her claims were not probate related.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for a unanimous court, wrote that Smith seeks a "judgment against Pierce, not the probate or annulment of a will." This claim could indeed fall within the jurisdiction of a federal court, Ginsburg wrote.
E. Pierce Marshall's lawyer, Eric Brunstad, expressed disappointment at the unanimous court ruling.
"All these allegations against my client were litigated in the Texas court and he was vindicated," Brunstad said.
Marshall released his own statement, saying, "Today's U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Marshall v. Marshall was on a technical issue and does not validate Smith's false claims and libelous accusations."
Anna Nicole Smith, the unlikely petitioner to the Supreme Court, has yet to comment personally on today's ruling, though her lawyer, Kent Richland, issued a statement this afternoon: "Every step of the way in this legal battle, Pierce Marshall's lawyers have claimed they would prevail including in the Supreme Court. We are confident that the 9th Circuit will have no problem in ruling in our favor on the issues that remain."
Smith has some tough legal hurdles to climb before she has a chance to collect any money, but today the high court allows her to at least make her argument.
For now, the Hollywood story is to be continued.