WASHINGTON — Demurely dressed in black, a silver cross around her neck, Anna Nicole Smith slipped in the side door of the Supreme Court on Tuesday and listened quietly in the back while her lawyers argued that the former stripper and Playboy Playmate was entitled to nearly $500 million she had been promised by her late husband, Texas oilman J. Howard Marshall II.
The lawyers said she was cheated when the tycoon's son forged documents and tried to file a will that left all the assets to him.
The Bush administration went to bat for her too -- although for different reasons. They want tax disputes involving estates decided in federal court, not state probate court. Similarly, the 38-year-old, whose real name is Vickie Lynn Marshall, did not want her case decided by Texas probate judges.
Most of the justices appeared convinced Tuesday that Marshall's legal claim is a strong one.
Justice David H. Souter summarized it this way: "Just give me the money I would have had" if her 89-year-old husband's wishes had been honored after his 1995 death.
Afterward, Marshall -- who has modeled and acted professionally under the name Anna Nicole Smith -- disappointed scores of photographers and TV camera crews gathered on the marble plaza in front of the court's steps. The 1993 "Playmate of the Year" emerged from the far side of the court building and left in a black sport-utility vehicle without making a public statement.
"She thought it was very important to be there, but she wanted to do it in as low-key a way as possible," said Los Angeles lawyer Kent L. Richland, who argued Marshall's case. "We all felt we didn't want this to be a spectacle."
For much of her adult life, she sought the limelight. She was a 24-year-old topless dancer when she met Marshall; the oil tycoon proposed marriage a week later. They wed in 1994, but he died a year later -- leaving an estate estimated at $1.6 billion.
Since then, she has been locked in a bitter legal battle with E. Pierce Marshall, 67. At one point, his father's will had named him the sole heir. But after Vickie Lynn and J. Howard Marshall married, the oilman ordered his attorneys to draw up a trust that left her half of his assets.
The legal dispute grew more complicated when Vickie Lynn Marshall filed for bankruptcy protection in California in 1996. Normally a federal bankruptcy court can claim "exclusive" control over all financial matters affecting the filer. When a bankruptcy judge in Orange County took up the case, he ruled for Marshall and said she was entitled to the money promised in her late husband's trust.
However, the Supreme Court has said that state courts should have exclusive control over deciding wills and settling estates. E. Pierce Marshall contended -- and the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed -- that the will should be decided in a Texas state court, not a federal bankruptcy court. That legal dispute prompted the Supreme Court to take up the case.
But for the identity of the petitioner, the argument in Marshall vs. Marshall probably would have been held before a half-empty courtroom.
Richland said J. Howard Marshall wanted half of his assets to go to his wife. "This was intended to be a gift," he told the justices. "It had nothing to do with probate."
U.S. Solicitor General Paul D. Clement filed a brief on the side of Vickie Lynn Marshall because the government wants tax disputes settled in a favorable forum. Sometimes, if a deceased person has a tax liability, it is not clear whether that dispute should be decided in a state court that handles estates or a federal court. The government prefers the latter.
"The United States has a substantial interest in preserving its ability to have claims to which it is a party resolved in federal court," Clement said in his brief to the court.
A ruling on the issue, due in several months, could have a broad effect on disputes over estates.
The administration lawyers appeared to tip the argument in the widow's favor.
"It never hurts to have the government on your side," Richland said afterward. "I am fairly pleased. It went as well as we could have hoped for."