MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
Today the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously in favor of one-time Playboy Playmate Anna Nicole Smith. She's been fighting a long-running battle to secure a portion of her late husband's billion dollar estate. As NPR's Nina Totenberg reports, this case isn't over 'til it's over.
NINA TOTENBERG: The case of Marshall versus Marshall is better than a Danielle Steel potboiler. It's part Knot's Landing, part Desperate Housewives and part Shakespearean filial betrayal. And this soap opera hasn't been cancelled yet, even by the Supreme Court. The plot centers on the estate of the late J. Howard Marshall, an estate valued by Forbes Magazine at 1.6 billion dollars. The protagonists are, shall we say, not without flaws. First there is, or was, J. Howard Marshall, a one-time Wills and Trust's Yale law professor who moved to the Southwest, made billions in oil and land investments and spent a lifetime at loggerheads with the IRS over contested tax loopholes and deductions, including his claim of a mistress as a consultant. At age 86, J. Howard met a 24-year-old stripper and future Playboy centerfold named Vickie Lynn, a.k.a. Anna Nicole Smith. After a three year courtship the pair married and Marshall allegedly created a trust to provide her money after his death. Enter Pierce Marshall, J. Howard's youngest son, 32 years older than his new stepmother and not a happy camper. Just 14 months after the marriage, 90-year-old J. Howard died and his son and young widow quickly came to legal blows. First Anna Nicole filed for bankruptcy and claimed that the son had cut off her money in violation of the trust she said J. Howard had left her. A federal bankruptcy judge in California concluded that J. Howard had in fact promised his wife half his estate, some 488 million dollars. But back in Texas, a state probate court reached the opposite conclusion and ruled Anna Nicole was entitled to nothing.
She then appealed to the federal courts to resolve the conflict, and a federal judge concluded that Pierce Marshall had conspired to destroy the trust his father left for Anna Nicole. The judge said son Pierce had conspired to strip J. Howard of his assets by backdating, altering and forging documents, and presenting documents to J. Howard to sign under false pretenses. In short, to loot the estate so there'd be nothing there to give the widow. Nonetheless, the federal judge lowered the amount the widow was owed to 44 million dollars plus punitive damages. But a federal appeals court later reversed that ruling, declaring that the Texas probate court had sole jurisdiction and that Anna Nicole's claim against Pierce could not be brought in bankruptcy court or any other federal court.
Anna Nicole then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and today she won, unanimously. Writing for the court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that Anna Nicole's claim against Pierce Marshall is a widely recognized claim of wrongful interference with an inheritance or gift that is within the jurisdiction of the federal courts. The Justices, however, sent the case back to the lower courts for further proceedings on a number of questions, meaning that after 11 years the litigation is still nowhere near an end. Indeed, within minutes of the announcement of today's Supreme Court opinion, Pierce Marshall released a statement saying that the ruling was on a technical issue and proclaiming that he would fight on to disprove what he called Anna Nicole Smith's false claims and libelous accusations. Fight on as well to keep all the money for himself. So tune in next time, as they say, for the next episode of Marshall vs. Marshall. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.