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Supreme Court to consider ex-Playboy model's claim to estate

WASHINGTON—Anna Nicole Smith wants $88 million that she says is hers, and this week the former Playboy beauty will petition the big brains of the Supreme Court to get it.

Smith's long-running dispute over her late husband's estate will get a hearing Tuesday at the high court, in what promises to be an unusual proceeding that confronts an important constitutional question while titillating the tabloid world.

Smith's case is the celebrity highlight of a big week at the court, during which the justices will hear disputes over strict campaign restrictions in Vermont, a radically gerrymandered legislative map in Texas and the thorny issue of tax incentives offered by states to businesses that expand within their borders.

Of all the cases, Smith's is the most unlikely to be on the court's docket. Most probate matters rarely make it into federal court at all, let alone to the Supreme Court. Indeed, what the justices will determine in Smith's case is just when these squabbles may involve federal, rather than state, questions.

Smith's troubles began in 1995, when her octogenarian husband—63 years her senior—died after 14 months of marriage and his son claimed most of the estate. Smith, who uses her real name, Vickie Lynn Marshall, in the case, wasn't named as a beneficiary in any of the several wills her husband left behind.

Smith sued in Texas, saying her husband had intended to leave her a substantial part of his estate. She accused the son of hiding or destroying records that proved those intentions.

She lost that case after a jury found that she couldn't prove her husband's intent. But a subsequent bankruptcy proceeding in a California federal court reached the opposite conclusion. Smith ultimately was awarded $88 million of her husband's more than $1 billion estate.

A federal appeals court later said the federal judgment had interfered with the state proceedings, and struck it down. The justices will determine whose authority—federal or state—will hold sway.

Smith's lawyers will tell the court that federal courts have broad jurisdiction over probate claims, and argue that the appeals court employed an "imaginary" court doctrine to favor the state court.

The son's attorneys say that's wrong.

"As this Court has long recognized, the States have the power and the duty to establish probate systems to facilitate the final disposition of a decedent's assets," they wrote.

Smith is expected to attend Tuesday's hearing.

The election cases from Vermont and Texas lack the tabloid appeal of Smith's case but confront much deeper questions. Each will address how far legislators may go to set the rules by which elections are staged, and when the courts should second-guess their efforts. They're the first chances for the court to address these issues since Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito were confirmed.

In the Vermont cases, the court will revisit its landmark 1976 decision that set the parameters for regulating campaign contributions and expenditures. The court has said contributions and expenditures are functions of free speech, but that contributions can be regulated because they can raise the specter of corruption. Expenditures, which essentially give candidates the ability to speak to voters, aren't open to the same type of corruption, the court said, so they can't be restricted.

Vermont, spurred by former Democratic Gov. Howard Dean, challenged both notions in a sweeping campaign-revision law. It set hard limits on expenditures and extremely low contribution limits, both of which inspired parties from across the political spectrum to sue.

A federal appeals court found substantial parts of the law constitutional despite the high court's precedent. The justices will begin deciding during a hearing Tuesday whether the 1976 ruling will stand, fall or be modified.

The other election cases this week spring from a long-running fight over Texas' redrawn legislative map. Several interests, including voting-rights groups, say the explicitly partisan manner in which Republicans designed the legislative districts violates their constitutional rights.

The court's last foray into this issue, last year, ended with a plurality of justices agreeing that there's little or no room for the court to become involved in questions of gerrymandering, which are expressly political. But Justice Anthony Kennedy penned a lone opinion saying he believed that courts had an opportunity to set some bounds—only he wasn't sure about the basis for that opportunity.

Kennedy almost certainly will play a central role in the Texas cases, too. The outcome could remove gerrymandering cases from court consideration for decades or involve the justices in a new round of litigation over the political process.

The tax incentive case has implications for states and cities that are desperate to attract new businesses. It springs from an Ohio incentive plan that promised a 10-year property-tax waiver for a new Chrysler plant being built in Toledo.

Local groups sued, complaining that the state's bargain of new jobs in exchange for tax relief was horrible policy. The legal hook for their complaints, though, is the Constitution's commerce clause, which has been interpreted to prevent states from favoring local businesses over out-of-state ones.

Because the incentive plan was particularly favorable to existing businesses that were seeking to expand, a lower court found that it was unconstitutional.

All the cases argued this week are expected to be decided by late June.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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