The battle over the estate of the late billionaire husband of deceased Playboy playmate Anna Nicole Smith came once again to the Supreme Court on Tuesday.
But in contrast to the made-for-tabloid facts of the case — a young topless dancer who marries an octogenarian oil magnate and fights bitterly with his family after his death for her share of his fortune — the arguments before the high court were devoid of any drama and esoteric, if not dull.
Broadly, the case is about the jurisdictional limits of federal bankruptcy courts.
“This court’s cases established that the bankruptcy court was constitutionally authorized to decide that entire dispute,” Kent L. Richland, an attorney for Smith’s estate, argued Tuesday.
Roy T. Englert, a lawyer for the estate of J. Howard Marshall II’s son, countered that the bankruptcy court exceeded its authority in the case.
Smith, who died of a prescription drug overdose, had married J. Howard Marshall II in 1994 after meeting him at a Texas strip club where she worked as a dancer. Marshall, at 89, was 62 years older than the 26-year-old Smith.
Court records indicate Marshall gave Smith gifts totaling more than $6 million during their brief courtship and marriage. According to lawyers for the estate of Marshall’s son, who died in 2006, the elder Marshall amended his final will two weeks after marrying Smith and left the bulk of his estate to his son.
Howard Marshall died in 1995 and the legal wrangling over his $1.6 billion estate followed shortly after.
A Texas probate court ruled in favor of the son, E. Pierce Marshall, saying that Smith was entitled to “take nothing” from Pierce Marshall, who was entitled to his inheritance without any interference from Smith.
But a federal bankruptcy court sided with Smith, ruling that Howard Marshall had intended to set up a trust fund for his trophy wife, but Pierce Marshall sought to block her from receiving any money. The bankruptcy court awarded Smith $474 million, though that amount was later reduced to $88 million.
With conflicting state and federal rulings, the case has been anything but closed during the past 15 years. The battle over Howard Marshall’s estate has now outlived both its principle combatants, and the results of Tuesday’s arguments are unlikely to put an end to the fighting as other legal issues remain unsettled.
The case has already been before the court once in 2006 with the court ruling in favor of Smith, who attended arguments in the case dressed in black, and sending the case back to a lower federal court for continued proceedings. But the court ruled in 2009 not to allow Smith’s estate access to money from Howard Marshall’s estate.