WASHINGTON, D.C. — The long-running legal fight over whether former Playmate Anna Nicole Smith should have gotten part of the fortune left behind by her elderly Texas billionaire husband landed at the Supreme Court on Tuesday as justices announced new cases to be argued in the upcoming 2010 term.
The justices, who begin hearing arguments on other cases on Monday, decided they would hear an appeal from the estate of the now-deceased Smith later this year or in early 2011.
Smith’s estate wants some of the $1.6 billion estate of her husband, J. Howard Marshall, who died in 1995. Marshall’s will left nearly all his money to his son, E. Pierce Marshall, and nothing to Smith.
Smith challenged the will, claiming that her husband promised to leave her more than $300 million above the $7 million in cash and gifts showered on her during their 14-month marriage.
But the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit sided with a Houston jury that said Marshall was mentally fit and under no undue pressure when he wrote a will leaving nearly all of his $1.6 billion estate to his son and nothing to Smith.
Smith’s estate is appealing that ruling, part of a legal battle that has outlived its main participants. The younger Marshall died in 2006 and Smith died of a drug overdose in 2007.
The convoluted dispute over J. Howard Marshall’s money has its roots in a Houston strip club where he met Smith. The two were wed in 1994 when he was 89 and she 26. Marshall died the next year and his will left his estate to his son.
Smith, and now her estate, have been fighting in court ever since to get part of Marshall’s millions that she said was promised to her.
Smith’s 4-year-old daughter, Dannielynn Birkhead, was named Smith’s heir after she died of a drug overdose at 39 at a Florida hotel. The girl’s father, Larry Birkhead, and attorney Howard K. Stern are in charge of the estate.
Marshall’s estate said it is ready to fight this ruling and noted other appeals in this case have yet to be heard.
“We have never wavered in our commitment to uphold the clearly stated and carefully documented wishes of the late J. Howard Marshall, II concerning how he wished the estate he created be distributed after his death,” a statement from the estate said.
The fight over Marshall’s fortune was among the 13 new cases the court agreed to hear in the term that begins Monday.
Other appeals accepted Tuesday include:
• An unusual freedom of information dispute over whether corporations may assert personal privacy interests to prevent the government from releasing documents about them. The issue arises in a bid by telecommunications giant AT&T to keep secret the information gathered by the Federal Communications Commission during an investigation.
A federal appeals court agreed with AT&T that it may claim a personal privacy exception in the federal Freedom of Information Act to keep the information from being released. The Obama administration says only individuals may invoke personal privacy interests under FOIA. The court’s newest justice, Elena Kagan, signed the administration’s brief in her previous job in the Justice Department and will not take part in the case.
• A bid by the Boeing Co. and General Dynamics Corp. to avoid paying the government $3 billion over the Navy’s ill-fated A-12 Avenger attack plane. The companies were the main contractors for the stealth plane, which was canceled in 1991. The legal fight has been ongoing ever since.
The case offers a narrow look at the state secrets privilege, which the government sometimes asserts in lawsuits over national security issues and terrorism. In this case, the companies say the government is trying to have it both ways. The government is demanding that the companies repay $1.35 billion, plus accumulated interest, because they did not meet the terms of the contract. At the same time, the companies say they were denied access to critical classified information that they needed to develop the plane and now can’t fully defend themselves against the government’s claims.
• Another look at the use of crime lab reports in drug, drunken driving and other trials, as part of the court’s recent examination of the constitutional requirement that defendants be able to confront the witnesses against them. A man convicted of drunken driving in New Mexico is challenging the state’s use of lab reports showing the amount of alcohol in his blood because the analyst who performed the test was not the one who testified about it in court.
The court also announced the public will have access to audio recordings of all its arguments a few days after they take place. But the justices no longer will agree to media requests for same-day release of audio in high-profile cases.