Smith is identified in the case by her real married name, Vickie Lynn Marshall. She married J. Howard Marshall II, 62 years older than her, approximately a year before his death.
Vickie filed suit in Texas state court alleging the elderly J. Howard meant to provide for her in a trust, but that his son Pierce illegally interfered with that wish.
After J. Howard died, Pierce filed a claim against Vickie in federal bankruptcy court. But a bankruptcy judge awarded her millions of dollars from J. Howard's estate in a counter-claim against Pierce.
On review of the bankruptcy action, a federal appeals court in California reversed a federal judge's ruling in Vickie's favor, saying the bankruptcy judge did not have the authority to rule on Vickie's counter-claim, and should have given the state court's judgment "preclusive effect."
In the majority opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Supreme Court said, "Although the bankruptcy court had the statutory authority to enter judgment on Vickie's counterclaim, it lacked the constitutional authority to do so."
Bankruptcy judges have authority under a federal statute, the opinion said, but are not federal judges under Article III of the Constitution.
The case decided by the court pits Vickie's estate against her stepson's estate.