Playmate wins right to pursue millions

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WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court handed Anna Nicole Smith a victory Monday in her 11-year-old claim on the oil fortune of her late husband, enabling the former topless dancer and TV celebrity to continue pursuing her legal quest in federal court.

The opinion opens yet another chapter in the long-running dispute and re-energizes Smith’s efforts to get as much as $88 million from the estate of her late spouse, J. Howard Marshall. It represents a setback for her legal adversary, E. Pierce Marshall, her husband’s youngest son.

The headline-grabbing case, which already has meandered through five courts in two states and the District of Columbia, now will return to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. A high court ruling against the former Playmate of the Year could have ended the legal battle in Marshall’s favor.

David Margulies, a spokesman for Marshall, said the Dallas businessman remained “very stoic” and was braced for a continuing legal battle that could take several years. “He’ll fight just as long as it takes.”

Smith’s attorneys couldn’t be reached for immediate comment.

Smith, who’s identified in the legal case as Vickie Marshall, was performing as a topless dancer at Rick’s Cabaret in Houston in 1993 when she met the elder Marshall, one of the wealthiest men in Texas, with a fortune estimated at more than $1 billion. She married the oil tycoon the next year when he was 89 and she was 26.

After the elder Marshall died 14 months later, Smith and her husband’s son plunged into a legal battle laced with bitter charges and countercharges. Marshall depicted Smith as a scheming gold digger while she accused him of altering and destroying documents to keep the fortune out of her hands.

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A state probate court in Texas ruled against Smith, but a federal bankruptcy court awarded her $449 million. A federal district court reduced the amount to $88 million, and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals subsequently overturned the award and sided with Marshall, saying the dispute should be left to state probate courts.

In the opinion by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the high court reversed the 9th Circuit decision by accepting Smith’s argument that federal courts have at least limited jurisdiction in certain probate issues.

Lawyers said the opinion seemingly recast the so-called probate exception, which generally prohibits federal jurisdiction in probate matters, and could prompt lawyers to turn increasingly to the federal courts in estate cases. In an odd legal alliance, the Bush administration sided with Smith in a supporting brief to protect federal jurisdiction in probate cases.

The next round before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals probably will focus more directly on the merits of the dispute, lawyers said. G. Eric Brunstad Jr., an attorney for Marshall, said his legal team would attempt to convince the appeals court that the Texas probate court’s judgment against Smith constituted the last word in the dispute.

“You can’t get a second bite at the apple,” Brunstad said.

Justices had hinted that they might rule in Smith’s favor when they heard arguments on the case in February. Smith, 38, sat at the rear of the packed chamber during the hearing and was confronted by a phalanx of photographers outside the court.

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