Anna Nicole Smith Case Reaches Supreme Court

The Supreme Court hears a case involving celebrity Anna Nicole Smith and millions of dollars. She is attempting to establish her claim to part of her late husband's estate.

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Anna Nicole Smith goes to the Supreme Court today. Her case is about whether federal courts may resolve competing probate judgements. While the legal issue is dry, the case to be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court involves voluptuous celebrity Anna Nicole Smith, her deceased billionaire husband, and his allegedly greedy and crooked son who was found to have stacked the deck in the probate process.

NPR Legal Affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG reporting:

The case of Marshall versus Marshall is better than a Harlequin romance novel. It's part Knott's Landing, and part Shakespearean filial betrayal. The plot centers on the estate of the late J. Howard Marshall. An estate valued at $1.6 billion. The protagonists are, shall we say, not without flaws.

First there is, or was, J. Howard Marshall, a one-time Yale wills and trust professor who made billions in oil and land investments in Texas, and spent a lifetime at loggerheads with the IRS over-claimed tax loopholes. Indeed, he even claimed his mistresses' tax deductions, asserting that they were consultants. At age 86, after both his wife and mistress died, J. Howard met a 24-year-old stripper and future Playboy centerfold model named Vicky Lynn, a.k.a. Anna Nicole Smith. After three years, Marshall persuaded her to marry him and allegedly created a trust to provide her money after his death.

Enter Pierce Marshall, J. Howard's son, 32 years older than his new stepmother, and furious about the situation. When J. Howard died at age 90, the son and the young widow quickly came to legal blows. First, when Anna Nicole filed for bankruptcy, because the son had cut off her money in violation of the trust she claimed her husband had left her. A federal bankruptcy judge concluded that J. Howard had, in fact, promised his wife half his estate, some $488 million.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch in Texas, the state probate court now proceeded to make its own judgment of what J. Howard had intended. After a five-month trial, a jury concluded that he had promised his wife nothing. Anna Nicole then appealed to the federal courts, claiming that the Texas courts had acted illegally in disregarding the federal bankruptcy court judgment.

To resolve the conflict, Federal Judge David Carter, a decorated former Marine, assistant D.A., and state court judge, spent a month hearing witnesses on both sides, and rendered an extraordinary 120-page opinion, concluding that Pierce Marshall had essentially looted his father's estate in a plot to deprive Anna Nicole of any money at all.

Yes, said the judge, she may have been a gold digger and illiterate, but she took care of her frail husband, and he was crazy about her, calling her the light of his life.

Most importantly, the judge concluded, that J. Howard had indeed executed a trust for his wife, which the son destroyed. In the storyline sketched by the judge, all of J. Howard's money was in a trust that the father created as a tax shelter. And in order to loot that trust, the son fired his father's longtime lawyer so that he and a new lawyer could backdate and forge documents, hire bodyguards to keep Anna Nicole away from her husband, and destroy the separate trust document that the father had signed to provide for his wife after his death. So egregious was the conduct on the son's side, said the judge, that he was recommending a perjury investigation be undertaken by the district attorney.

The judge, however, did reduce the bankruptcy court's $488 million judgment to a tenth that amount, $44 million, plus an equal amount of punitive damages. The reduction was because the judge concluded that J. Howard had intended to bequeath his wife half the value of the stock that existed in the trust during the 14 months the two were married, and not half his entire estate.

Pierce Marshall appealed this judgment to the Federal Appeals Court in California, which in turn ruled that the federal courts had no business intervening in a probate case. Now the Supreme Court has stepped in to resolve the matter, and outside the courtroom, the focus, you can be sure, will be more prurient than probate.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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