With an oil fortune on the line, former stripper Anna Nicole Smith encountered a sympathetic audience at the Supreme Court on Tuesday.
Several justices said they were concerned that the one-time Playboy Playmate was kept from pursuing a piece of her late husband's fortune.
"It's quite a story," said Justice Stephen Breyer.
Smith married oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall II in 1994 when he was 89 and she was a 26-year-old topless dancer in Texas. Marshall died the following year. His fortune has been estimated at as much as $1.6 billion.
One of his two sons claims he is the only heir.
Breyer said there was evidence that the son hired private detectives to keep Smith away from her elderly husband's bedside.
Smith's claim is simple, said Justice David Souter, "just give me the money I would have had."
Justices repeatedly referred to the amount of money at stake, and criticized arguments that only a Texas court had jurisdiction to settle the nasty family feud.
"That's just not the way our system works," said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the only woman justice.
About two dozen photographers swarmed Smith and her attorney as they left through a side door of the court building after the hearing, then sped away in a black SUV.
Earlier, when she arrived, several photographers were knocked to the ground in their zeal to get a picture of Smith, dressed in a knee-length dress, high heels and black sunglasses.
Smith, the spokeswoman for a diet product company, was awarded $474 million by a federal bankruptcy judge. That was later reduced by a federal district judge and then thrown out altogether by a federal appeals court on jurisdictional grounds.
The high court's eventual ruling will determine whether Smith gets another chance at part of Marshall's estate.
The justices are dealing with a technical question: When may federal courts hear claims that involve state probate proceedings? Smith lost in Texas state courts, which found that E. Pierce Marshall was the sole heir to his father's estate.
Huge crowds packed the court.
"Most people will do a double take," said Edward Morrison, a former Supreme Court clerk who specializes in bankruptcy law at Columbia University. "It raises the novelty level and makes a technical issue somewhat more entertaining."
Douglas Baird, a bankruptcy expert at the University of Chicago, said: "I'd suspect some justices haven't the slightest idea who Anna Nicole is."
The Bush administration is siding with Smith as a technical matter, arguing that the justices should protect federal court jurisdiction in such disputes.
Marshall showered Smith with $6.6 million in gifts that included two homes, $2.8 million in jewelry and $700,000 in clothes, and she contends that he also promised her half his estate.
Pierce Marshall said various wills and trusts his father prepared over the years made him the only heir.
A federal court ruled in 2002 that Smith was entitled to compensatory and punitive damages because Pierce Marshall altered, destroyed and falsified documents to try to keep her from receiving money from his father's estate. He denies any wrongdoing, and that decision was thrown out.