The Supreme Court appeared ready Tuesday to bless former Playboy playmate Anna Nicole Smith's pursuit of a piece of her late husband's oil fortune.
The court waded into an 11-year family feud over the estate of J. Howard Marshall II, who died at age 90 after a brief marriage to Smith. The case is dominated by themes of sex, greed and deception.
"It's quite a story," Justice Stephen Breyer said.
Marshall's youngest son, E. Pierce Marshall, says that he is the sole heir and that Smith's legal fight is dead, because she lost in a Texas probate court. On Tuesday, justices didn't appeared to agree.
Smith, a former stripper known for her flashy, cleavage-revealing outfits, watched from near the back of the court, dressed in black. Her lawyers said she was in tears during part of the argument when justices discussed her late husband.
Justices tread delicately on the subject matter.
Chief Justice John Roberts said the case involved "a substantial amount of assets," referring to the fortune of Smith's husband of 14 months. The estate was estimated at as much as $1.6-billion.
Otherwise, however, it was a lively debate that included many references to Smith, although justices referred to her by her given name, Vickie Lynn.
Breyer said that there was evidence the will was forged and that the son hired private detectives to keep Smith away from her elderly husband's sick bed. She was a 26-year-old topless dancer when she and Marshall were married.
Her late husband, a widower with a penchant for strippers, showered Smith with gifts including two homes, jewelry and clothes.
In addition, she contends that he promised her half his estate.
G. Eric Brunstad Jr., the lawyer for the son, said a Texas court investigated her claims during a five-month trial and rejected them. He said Smith had no grounds to bring a separate claim in federal court in California.
He faced tough questions from the justices who seemed hesitant to limit the federal courts' reach.
"I don't see your logic," Souter told Brunstad.
The case requires the court to clarify when federal courts may hear claims that involve state probate proceedings.