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There were more camera crews than usual on the steps of the Supreme Court today, a lot more, proof that sex sells even at the nation's highest court. Today, the justices heard a case brought by one-time Playboy centerfold Anna Nicole Smith.
As NPR's Nina Totenberg reports, the case involves sex, perfidy and lots and lots of money.
NINA TOTENBERG reporting:
The paparazzi were out in force today. But while Anna Nicole Smith was in the courtroom, last row, low profile, she was a disappointing no-show at the microphones, leaving reporters to interview each other.
Unidentified Woman: So who are you with?
Unidentified Man: I'm with Access Hollywood.
Unidentified Woman: And what are you doing here?
Unidentified Man: We're covering the media madness over the --
TOTENBERG: Inside the courtroom, the sordid saga unfolded in dry legal terms. But even in the high court, the justices referred to the characters by their first names. In addition to one-time stripper, Anna Nicole Smith, whose real name is Vicki Marshall, there is -- or was -- her billionaire husband, Jay Howard Marshall, and his allegedly greedy and crooked son, Pierce Marshall.
Jay Howard died at age 90, leaving his 27-year old wife, Anna Nicole, and an estate valued at $1.6 billion. She filed for bankruptcy because she said that Pierce had cut off her money in violation of the trust her husband had left her. A federal bankruptcy judge concluded that she was indeed entitled to half the estate, or $488 million. A Texas probate court concluded she was entitled to nothing. And a federal district court sought to resolve the matter.
Federal Judge David Carter ruled that Jay Howard had intended his wife to be taken care of to the tune of $44 million, but that son Pierce had essentially looted Jay Howard's estate to prevent his young wife from getting any money at all, and that Pierce and his lawyer had lied, cheated and destroyed documents in pursuit of that goal.
A federal appeals court, however, ruled that under a doctrine known as the Probate Exception, federal courts have no business dealing with probate questions, as they are to be resolved by state courts. Anna Nicole then appealed to the Supreme Court, and today, after a rocky start for her lawyer, it sounded very much as though she might win.
Her lawyer, Kent Richland, opened with an assertion so broad that Justice Scalia asked, do you have a lesser position, you know, one that might cause you to win?
Riding to the rescue was the federal government in the person of Assistant Solicitor General Deanne Maynard. In a brief 10 minutes of oral argument, Maynard deflated the Probate Exception to a narrow category of cases. True, she said, a federal court cannot probate a will or nullify a will already probated by a state court, but she said, Jay Howard's money was in a big fat trust because he wanted to avoid probate, and trusts are not the province of probate court.
Justice Scalia: so whatever the probate exception is, it ain't this. Answer, yes. Arguing the other side of the question for Pierce Marshall was lawyer Eric Brunstad. The Probate Exception, he said, exists to prevent exactly what happened in this case. A federal court finding an estate plan was invalid.
Justice Breyer: you have a totally different understanding of this case than I do. I thought Judge Carter's opinion said that because your client interfered with a gift to Jay Howard's wife, she was entitled to several millions of dollars plus damages. All the judge's findings, including that your client forged three pages of the will, all of those are just evidence of wrongful interference with the gift, not a judgment about the will.
Justice Kennedy: can't you just say we will assume the will is valid, but there's been a tort, a wrongful interference in this case? Justice Breyer: Jay Howard said to his lawyers, go set up a trust for her, and they didn't do it. Why isn't that tortuous interference? And that's just one of the things they did. They had private detectives keep her from his bedside. Read Judge Carter's opinion, it's quite a story. So how can Texas say this is excluded?
Justice Souter: her claim is I just want some money from this guy. The will is valid, just give me the money he promised me. Answer, once the probate court has determined this is a valid will, all other claims are foreclosed. Justice Scalia: you're stretching the Probate Exception from what is a valid will to what is in the will. That to me is something entirely different.
Chief Justice Roberts: she isn't even going after the assets in this case. She is just going after Pierce for interfering with her gift. Justice Ginsberg: I've never heard of a state court being able to prevent a federal court claim just because it's related to probate. That's just not the way our system works.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.