IT IS OFFICAL..............JUDGE RICKHOFF SUCKS
When you goto a store, a restaurant, a doctors office, government offices
…..anywhere in fact…. you find a little sign that says. “If you have a complaint pleases contact…..
That is not true for Courtrooms….it should be true....but it is not.
So…if you have a complaint about Rickhoff or any other Judge here
is the contact information.
http://www.scjc.state.tx.us/ HOME PAGE
http://www.scjc.state.tx.us/pdf/ComplaintForm-English-071309.pdf COMPLAINT FORM
Commission on Judicial Conduct
PO Box 12265 Austin, TX 78711-2265
Tel. (512) 463-5533 · Toll Free: (877) 228-5750 You don’t have to but if you cc me the complaint
form I will make sure you at least have an audience.
Posted on March 4, 2010 | BY LEE CUSENBARY
~~The Texas Lawyer reports below on a dispute between a judge and the Judicial Conduct Commission.
The judge believes his free speech rights were compromised when the Commission told him he shouldn’t send out a letter with disparaging remarks about his political opponent, who happens to have a case before him in his court. The letter he sent said that his opponent had no trial experience, which she claims is false.
False statements can be defamatory…but that’s a different potential lawsuit.
I have no personal knowledge of any of this, but let’s look at the problem based just on what was reported…
The opponent represented a client in the judge’s court while they are running in a political race for the judge’s job.
That’s about as personal and confilcting as you can get. She asked the judge to recuse himself (give the case to another judge) since he had possibly defamed her in a letter and she felt as thought it impacted her client’s rights. The judge refused to let another judge hear the case.
Here’s my quick take on the situation from a judicial ethics perspective. A client has a right to hire the counsel they want to hire. When the client’s case was assigned to the judge in question, the client’s best interests are served if the judge recuses himself since the judge’s opponent is the prepared lawyer (already been paid to do work on the case)and the conflict between the candidates was obvious to all involved. Canon 3 of the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct says judges must remain impartial.
The judge had already spoken negatively about her at least once, and it was in writing distributed widely to the community. From a practical standpoint, If new counsel has to be selected, the hearing is delayed and the client has to pay for the same legal work again to the new lawyer. As a client, I would like to believe that the judiary has the integrity to never risk an impartial decision from the bench. That seems like a fundamental aspect of judicial ethics. If the judge recused
himself, the client would not have to start over with and pay another lawyer and delay his day in court. To be fair to the judge who refused to recuse, there may be some reason that the judge didn’t let another judge hear the case. I don’t know the reason why, but it appears from a distance that this is yet another reason electing judges is inefficient and not always in client’s best interest.
In this case, there is so much focus on the lawyer’s rights and mud slinging, that there is little time spent considering the fidiciary duty of attorneys and judges to avoid compromising a client’s best interests. When judges are elected, we force attorneys to split their focus between promoting themselves and protecting people’s rights, from either side of the bench. It’s not always a problem, but here it appears it was. (Of cource there was a problem...it was Rickhoff's court)
The full Texas Lawyer story follows so you can decide for yourself if this appears to be a problem:
Texas Lawyer Copyright 2010 ALM Media Properties, LLC March 1, 2010 Volume 25; Issue 48
SUES JUDICIAL CONDUCT COMMISSION EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, MEMBERS John Council Bexar County Probate Court No. 2 Judge Tom Rickhoff has filed a federal suit against the 13 members and the executive director of the State Commission on Judicial Conduct alleging that their investigation into a complaint filed against him by a political opponent violates his First Amendment free-speech rights. In his Feb. 17 complaint in Rickhoff v. Willing, et al., filed in the Western District of Texas,
Rickhoff attacks the commission executive director’s and members’ authority to police sitting judges’ campaign speech and alleges that such investigations chill jurists’ free-speech rights and judicial independence. Rickhoff is suing the defendants in their official capacities. “I consider it exceedingly significant to the judiciary,” says Rickhoff. “This case is about judicial
independence.” (You can read this as, "How dare you tell me I can not do anything I dam well please! I'm the judge, bow down and empty your pockets." Rickhoff alleges the following in his complaint: Rickhoff, a Republican, is running for re-election to the bench in the 2010 general election. He faces Democrat Barbara Scharf-Zeldes, in-house counsel for Group Legal Services,
which represents San Antonio police and firefighters’ unions. Scharf-Zeldes practices in Rickhoff’s court. In June 2009 — during a break in a hearing before Rickhoff in a case in which Scharf-Zeldes represented a party — Rickhoff met with her and other attorneys in the case. He acknowledged the difficulty in continuing to oversee cases in which his political opponent was a counsel of record. Because he did not want to burden another judge by transferring the suit, Rickhoff inquired whether another attorney could substi-tute for Scharf-Zeldes in cases before him. Scharf-Zeldes opposed the idea, Rickhoff alleges in his complaint. After that meeting, Rickhoff sent a letter to his campaign contributors that highlighted Scharf-Zeldes’ alleged “lack of trial experience.” The letter stated that in a meeting with an editorial board of the San Antonio Express-News, Scharf-Zeldes
“could not cite one jury trial in which she ever represented a client.” On June 23, 2009, Scharf-Zeldes filed motions to transfer venue in two suits pending before Rickhoff — motions he denied. On June 29, 2009, Scharf-Zeldes filed motions to recuse Rickhoff in those cases, alleging Rickhoff could not serve as an impartial jurist, pursuant to Canon 3 of the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct
(which says judges must remain impartial), and that his statements in his campaign letter about her trial experience violated Canon 5 (which requires judges to refrain from inappropriate political activity that could cause a judge’s partiality in a case to be questioned). Rickhoff declined to recuse himself. The recusal motions were referred to David Peeples, presiding judge of the 4th Administrative Judicial Region, who assigned the matter to Judge Dick Acala. After a hearing, Acala denied the recusal motions. On July 9, 2009, Scharf-Zeldes filed a complaint against Rickhoff with the judicial conduct commission, arguing that the comments about her in his campaign letter violated Canon 5(1)(ii), which says a judge shall not “knowingly or recklessly misrepresent the
identity, qualifications, present position or other fact concerning the candidate or an opponent. . . .” Citing Canon 3b(5), she also wrote that Rickhoff’s request that other attorneys replace her on cases pending in his court showed that he could not “be fair to me and serve as an impartial jurist.” On Feb. 4, Rickhoff received a letter from the commission asking him to respond to the
allegations in Scharf-Zeldes’ complaint. Many of the questions in the letter concerned Rickhoff’s request that Scharf-Zeldes have another lawyer represent her clients in his court. But in one question concerning his campaign letter, the commission wrote: “Please respond to complainant’s contention that you made a misleading statement in a letter. . . .” Rickhoff says he answered
all of the commission’s questions and planned to return his responses by the Feb. 26 deadline, after Texas Lawyer’s presstime. Get With the Times. In his U.S. District Court complaint in Rickhoff v. Willing, et al., Rickhoff alleges, “By filing a complaint with the SCJC regarding campaign statements Rickhoff made with regard to his opponent . . . Scharf-Zeldes has effectively required
the SCJC to investigate Rickhoff’s campaign speech in violation of his fundamental right to free speech.” Rickhoff cites the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Republican Party of Minnesota v. White (2002), which held that a judicial canon that prohibits judicial candidates from discussing political issues violated the First Amendment. In his complaint, Rickhoff asks U.S. District
Judge Xavier Rodriguez of San Antonio to declare that his campaign letter is protected free speech and that the judicial conduct commission’s investigation violates Rickhoff’s rights under the First Amendment, among other things. “Judge Rickhoff is a highly principled person. (What a joke...the only principle, rule or law he believes in that he is allways right and if any one
dare say other wise the are "crazy". He just thinks that the commission needs to catch up with the White case and stop involving itself with these partisan political issues,” says David Prichard, a partner in San Antonio’s Prichard Hawkins McFarland & Young who represents Rickhoff. Rickhoff believes Scharf-Zeldes’ complaint and the commission’s letter asking him to respond have chilled
his abil-ity to conduct his political campaign, Prichard says. If Rickhoff refused to answer, he could be punished, Prichard says. “Where else can you get this kind of chilling effect on your free speech? You have to answer questions about the truth or falsity about a campaign statement. That’s the issue,” (Yeah and if he had just answered the question the commission would have done
nothing and he knows it.) Prichard says. Seana Willing, executive director of the judicial conduct commission, declines comment about Rickhoff. But, speaking generally, she says the commission has no choice but to investigate each complaint it receives, regardless of whether it involves politics. “[O]n the face of the complaint — if it’s from a political opponent or an anonymous
[person] — we have to assess whether the allegations in the complaint if true would be a violation of the Judicial Code of Conduct. So, if we got something in the mail, and it was a complaint by Candidate A against Incumbent B, we can’t just discount it and not investigate on the sole basis that it’s political and is involved in a political race,” says Willing, speaking on behalf of herself and the commission members. The Texas Office of the Attorney General will represent Willing and the members. “However, we would certainly look at it and quickly eliminate any possibility that this was not brought in good faith and bring that to the commission’s attention as soon as we could,” Willing says. It’s up to the Texas Supreme Court to adjust the judicial canons to accommodate White, not the commission, Willing adds. Scharf-Zeldes says that contrary to Rickhoff’s campaign letter, she does have trial experience.(Lair Lair pants on fire.) She says her com-plaint against Rickhoff with the judicial conduct commission does not violate his free-speech rights. “If you are a
judge, you have to follow the judicial code of conduct,” says Scharf-Zeldes. “The direct question that they are trying to get him to answer is: Has he violated a canon? How is that a violation of free speech when it’s an investigation? Don’t we all have a duty to be honest to the tribunal?”
White Aftermath In 2002, the Texas Supreme Court removed the so-called “announce clause” from Canon 5 of the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct after the U.S. Supreme Court issued White. The announce clause had stated that “a judge shall not make statements that indicate an opinion on any issue that may be subject to judicial interpretation by the office that is being sought or held.” But the Texas Supreme Court added a comment to the new Canon 5: “A statement made during a campaign for judi-cial office, whether or not prohibited by this Canon, may cause a judge’s impartiality to be reasonably questioned in the context of a particular case and may result in recusal.” Lillian Hardwick, a Houston solo and judicial ethics expert, says the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct “barely” changed to reflect White. She believes the outcome of Rickhoff’s federal suit may hinge on one thing: Rickhoff’s decision to write the cam-paign letter. “It all started with his letter. If he chooses to write a letter saying something like that, then he has to be ready to recuse,” says Hardwick, author of the “Handbook of Texas Lawyer and Judicial Ethics,” noting the comment to Canon 5. There is much for Rodriguez to weigh in Rickhoff’s complaint, says Henry Ackels, a partner in Dallas’ Ackels & Ackels who has represented judges before the commission. “I don’t think a federal court would say that your free-speech rights are being violated for merely investigating a complaint. I think the federal court will probably want to look further into it and ask why this couldn’t have waited until the campaign was over to ask for a response to the complaint?” Ackels says. “All the commission does is inves-tigate past conduct. I would question why they are addressing it in the middle of the campaign.
~TOM RICKHOFF, Plaintiff-Appellant,
\ v. SEANA WILLING, Official Capacity as Member of the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct; JORGE C. RANGEL, Official Capacity as member of the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct; JAN P. PATTERSON, Official Capacity as Member of the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct; JANELLE SHEPARD, Official Capacity as Member of the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct; SID HARLE, Official Capacity as Member of the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct; ANN APPLING BRADFORD, Official Capacity as Member of the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct; MICHAEL R. FIELDS, Official Capacity
as Member of the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct; TOM LAWRENCE, Official Capacity as Member of the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct; TOM CUNNINGHAM, Official Capacity as Member of the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct; WILLIAM “BILL” LAWRENCE, Official Capacity as Member of the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct; KARRY K. MATSON, Official Capacity as Member of the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct; PATTI H. JOHNSON, Official Capacity as Member of the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct; JOEL BAKER, Official Capacity as Member of the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct; EDWARD J. SPILLANE, III, Official Capacity as Member of the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct, Defendants-Appellees. No. 11-50411.
Summary Calendar. United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit.
Filed January 4, 2012.Before: KING, JOLLY, and GRAVES, Circuit Judges. PER CURIAM.[*] Defendants conducted an investigation into a complaint that plaintiff, a judge, had violated a judicial Canon. Upon being notified by the defendants that a complaint had been filed against him, plaintiff filed suit in the district court seeking to enjoin the defendants from continuing its investigation
into the alleged Canon violation. After dismissing the portion of the complaint relating to the Canon violation, defendants moved for summary judgment on all of plaintiff’s federal claims based on the abstention principles of Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971).
The district court agreed with the defendants that Younger abstention applied, granted its motion for summary judgment, and dismissed plaintiff’s case. We affirm.
FACTS AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND In June 2009, Bexar County Probate Judge Tom Rickhoff (“Rickhoff”) mailed letters to his opponent’s campaign contributors commenting on her lack of trial experience. As a result, Rickhoff’s opponent, Barbara Scharf-Zeldes (“Scharf-Zeldes”), filed a complaint with the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct (the “Commission”)
alleging, inter alia, that Rickhoff’s letter misrepresented her trial experience in violation of the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct Canon 5(1)(ii). In response to Scharf-Zeldes’s complaint, the Commission’s investigative staff set out to determine whether the allegations,
if true, amounted to a Canon and/or constitutional violation. After some initial research, the investigative staff recommended that the complaint be transferred to the Commission’s legal staff for a determination of whether Canon 5(1)(ii) posed a constitutional violation. The legal staff found no authority for the proposition that Canon 5(1)(ii) was unconstitutional under
the First Amendment, and chose to continue the investigation.
On February 4, 2010, the Commission notified Rickhoff of the ongoing investigation and requested that he respond to a questionnaire regarding Scharf-Zeldes’s complaint. Rickhoff did not respond to the Commission’s letter, but instead filed this suit against the Commission challenging the constitutionality of Canon 5(1)(ii) and seeking to enjoin the Commission’s
The Commission continued its investigation and contacted witnesses concerning Scharf-Zeldes’s complaint. Thereafter, Rickhoff responded to the Commission’s questionnaire by stating that the statements in his campaign letter to Scharf-Zeldes’s campaign contributors were true, and that the Commission’s investigation violated his First Amendment rights.
On April 16, 2010, the full Commission held a meeting concerning Scharf-Zeldes’s complaint against Rickhoff. The Commission determined that Rickhoff had not violated Canon 5(1)(ii) and voted to dismiss that portion of Scharf-Zeldes’ complaint.
The Commission, however, offered Rickhoff a tentative sanction regarding the other allegations in Scharf-Zeldes’s complaint. As of October 2010, Rickhoff had not accepted the proposed sanction. After dismissing that portion of Scharf-Zeldes’ complaint concerning the alleged Canon 5(1)(ii) violation, the Commission filed its motion for summary judgment on all of Rickhoff’s claims.
In its motion for summary judgment, the Commission asserted that Younger abstention requires the district court to abstain from hearing Rickhoff’s case. The district court agreed with the Commission and dismissed the case. On November 11, 2010, Rickhoff filed his motion for reconsideration, which the district court denied. Rickhoff now appeals. STANDARD OF REVIEW In
abstention cases, we apply a two-part standard of review. Texas Ass’n of Business v. Earle,388 F.3d 515, 518 (5th Cir. 2004) (citing Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co. v. Unauthorized Practice of Law Comm., 283 F.3d 650,652 (5th Cir. 2002)). While we review a district court’s abstention ruling for abuse of discretion, we review whether the requirements of abstention are satisfied
de novo. Id. “A court necessarily abuses its discretion when it abstains outside of the doctrine’s strictures.” Webb v. B.C. Rogers Poultry, Inc., 174 F.3d 697, 701 (5th Cir.1999). Thus, we review a district court’s decision to abstain for abuse of discretion, provided that the elements for Younger abstention are present. DISCUSSION According to Younger, federal courts must refrain
from considering requests for injunctive or declaratory relief based upon constitutional challenges to state proceedings pending at the time the federal action was commenced. Texas Ass’n of Business, 388 F.3d at 518. The Supreme Court “instructed federal courts that the principles of equity, comity, and federalism in certain circumstances counsel abstention in deference to ongoing state proceedings.” Fieger v. Thomas, 74 F.3d 740, 743 (6th Cir.1996) (discussing Younger, 401 U.S. at 43-44). Younger abstention is required when: (1) there is an ongoing state proceeding that is judicial in nature; (2) the state has an important interest in
regulating the subject matter of the claim; and (3) there is an adequate opportunity in the state proceeding to raise the constitutional challenges. Wightman v. Texas Supreme Court, 84 F.3d 188, 189 (5th Cir. 1996). Youngerabstention has been extended to apply to certain kinds of civil and administrative proceedings that are judicial in nature. Ohio Civil Rights Comm’n
v. Dayton Christian Schs., Inc., 477 U.S. 619 (1986) (Younger abstention was appropriate when matter was before a state commission charged with hearing gender discrimination claims); Middlesex Cnty. Ethics Comm. v. Garden State Bar Ass’n, 457 U.S. 423 (1982) (applying Younger abstention to intervention in ongoing attorney disciplinary proceedings); Juidice v. Vail, 430
U.S. 327 (1977) (holding that Youngershould apply in challenges to civil contempt proceedings against a default judgment debtor who failed to comply with a subpoena). Furthermore, our sister circuits have applied Youngerabstention to judicial oversight and disciplinary proceedings. See, e.g., Squire v. Coughlan, 469 F.3d 551, 556 (6th Cir. 2006); Butler v. Alabama Judicial
Inquiry Comm’n, 261 F.3d 1154 (11th Cir. 2001); Pincham v. Ill. Judicial Inquiry Bc., 872 F.2d 1341 (7th Cir. 1989).
First, we must determine whether the Commission’s investigation of Scharf-Zeldes’s complaint against Rickhoff constituted an “ongoing state proceeding.” The Commission’s proceedings have both administrative functions, like investigating alleged judicial misconduct and making an initial determination of whether the allegations, if true, amount to a Canon and/or constitutional
violation, and judicial functions, like summoning witnesses and determining whether disciplinary action is warranted. See Texas Ass’n of Business, 388 F.3d at 520. Moreover, the Texas Constitution provides that “[t]he Supreme Court shall by rule provide for the procedure before the Commission, Masters, review tribunal, and the Supreme Court,” TEX. CONST. art. V, § 1-a)11), which the Supreme Court has done by promulgating the Texas Rules for Removal or Retirement of Judges. Therefore, the Commission’s proceedings are judicial in nature. We must, however, determine whether the Commission’s proceedings were “ongoing” to satisfy the first prong of Younger. The relevant inquiry in determining that the state judicial proceeding was “ongoing” is
whether the state proceeding was pending at the time the federal action was instituted. See Pennzoil v. Texaco, 481 U.S. 1, 17 (1987).
It is clear from the record that the Commission was still investigating the alleged Canon violation at the time Rickhoff filed his federal claims against the Commission. Notably, the Commission’s proceedings were still pending at the time the district court determined the Younger abstention because Rickhoff had yet to accept the tentative sanction proposed by the Commission.
Thus, the state judicial proceedings were “ongoing,” thereby satisfying the first prong of Younger. Because Rickhoff did not dispute that the second prong of Younger had been satisfied in the district court we find no need to discuss it here. Therefore, we proceed
to determine whether the third prong of Younger has been satisfied. To satisfy the third prong of Younger, Rickhoff must have had an adequate opportunity in the state proceeding to raise his constitutional challenges. Wightman, 84 F.3d at 189. Rickhoff argues that the Commission is incapable of analyzing his constitutional challenges and that Texas Supreme Court review is necessary to
We are, however, unpersuaded by Rickhoff’s argument. Despite Rickhoff’s contentions, Texas law indicates that the Commission can, in fact, consider constitutional challenges to the judicial Canons and the Commission’s procedures. See, e.g.,In re Rose, 144 S.W.3d 661 (Tex. Rev. Trib. 2004) (noting the Commission considered judge’s due process challenges to the proceedings). Additionally, review by the Texas Supreme Court is not required. In Juidice, the Supreme Court opined that Younger only requires that there is an opportunity to raise constitutional challenges. Juidice, 430 U.S. at 337. Because the Commission is a competent body for analyzing constitutional challenges to the judicial Canons it is clear that the
third requirement of Younger has been met. Therefore, the three-prong test for Younger abstention has been satisfied. The district court correctly refrained from considering Rickhoff’s request for injunctive relief based upon his constitutional challenges.
CONCLUSION Based on the foregoing, we AFFIRM the judgement of the district court. [*] Pursuant to 5TH CIR. R. 47.5,
the court has determined that this opinion should not be published and is not precedent except under the limited
circumstances set forth in 5TH CIR. R. 47.5.4.
~Oct. 31, 2006, San Antonio Current post: Targets: Tom and Gerry Rickhoff, Probate
Court Judge 2 and his brother, the County Clerk
An anonymous squealer forwarded us a 10-page court motion against Tom Rickhoff,
who’s up for re-election as Probate Court Judge #2, handling wills and inheritance.
Try to follow us on this one: the complaint alleges that Rickhoff has an improper soft
spot for a lawyer named Dick Tinsman.
So, to hedge his bets, Tinsman regularly hires another attorney, Charles Jackson III
(you’ll remember him as the Primarily Primates defender against the Attorney General),
to do nothing except attach his name to his case and metaphorically pick his nose. Why?
Because Jackson’s sister is Judge Polly Spencer, who rules over the other probate court.
When Jackson signs on, Spencer recuses herself; the case defaults to Rickhoff. Clever, huh?
The source line at the bottom of the document indicates it originated with the computers at
the defendants’ law firm, Daniels & Daniels, but they’re in No Comment mode. The squealer
also alleges that Rickhoff’s brother, County Clerk Gerry Rickhoff, sloppily doctored the original
case filing to make sure it got to his brother’s court.
~The Texas Constitution Limits the Commission’s Options to Hear Major Cases in Open Proceedings. The Commission investigates complaints against judges and conducts
either informal or formal proceedings to decide whether or not to take action against a judge. Once the Commission institutes a formal proceeding, it can only dismiss the
complaint, issue a censure, or make a recommendation on removal or retirement. The Commission may not issue any of the lesser,more remedial sanctions it has available
following an informal proceeding. Sunset staff found the Commission’s limited range of penalties available following a formal proceeding could deter it from pursuing cases of
public import in open proceedings. Allowing the Commission to issue any of its lesser sanctions — in addition to a public censure or recommendation for removal or retirement
— would equip the Commission with all the necessary tools it needs and remove any disincentive to taking a case to an open, formal proceeding when warranted. Key
Recommendations Constitutionally authorize the Commission to use its full range of sanctions following formal proceedings. Statutorily authorize a Court of Review to hear
appeals of sanctions following formal proceedings, in the same manner as it hears appeals of censures.
~Lack of Access to Key Meetings and Records Limits Sunset’s Ability to Fully Assess the Commission’s Oversight of Judges. The Sunset Act requires state agencies to assist
the Sunset Commission and authorizes Sunset staff to inspect the records, documents, and files of an agency. The Sunset Act also protects an agency’s confidential records
by providing that Sunset staff must maintain the confidentiality of any such information obtained during the course of a review. However, the Commission would not allow
Sunset staff to attend its largely closed meetings to observe its enforcement process and barred staff from viewing the memoranda the Commission’s legal counsel provides
to Commission members for formulating rulings on cases. As a result, staff could not assess the Commission’s primary duty. Requiring the Commission to provide Sunset staff
with access to observe its closed meetings and review its confidential records would ensure a complete and thorough evaluation of the Commission’s activities. Sunset would
continue to maintain confidentiality of the information. In addition, reviewing the Commission in six years, rather than the standard 12-year period, would allow the Commission
time to implement changes recommended as a result of this review and enable Sunset to more fully evaluate the Commission’s disciplinary process. Key Recommendations
Require the Commission to provide Sunset staff with access to observe its closed meetings and review its confidential records to ensure a complete and thorough evaluation
of the Commission’s activities. Review the Commission in six years, rather than the standard 12-year period.
~Estate of Denial® found the third issue of greatest interest. How can an oversight committee perform its function when not allowed access to key meetings and files? We’ll
answer our own question. With the legal industry (lawyers, judges and other court-associated personnel), rules and other norms by which average taxpayers function are
routinely disallowed, disaffirmed, rejected, refuted, shrugged off, slighted, negated and/or nixed. You get our point. The rules don’t apply.
~How judges, probate attorneys, and guardianship orgs abuse the vulnerable
By Michael Barajas Published: September 5, 2012
Ross insisted the fundraising could make Rickhoff unfairly favor Smith, who he says has an interest in seeing Dahlman appointed a guardian, and Bailey
in the guardianship case. "
As it turned out half the lawyers that were in her case were on this informal committee for Rickhoff," Ross said. "But Judge Peeples said there wasn't
enough smoke to see if we needed to look for some fire."
Rickhoff was allowed to stay on the case. +++++++++++ Peeples and Ross might have looked to fees awarded in Rickhoff's court for more smoke.
The state Office of Court Administration began collecting electronic reports on fees for the first time in 2009, following a state Supreme Court initiative
to boost accountability in light of long-standing claims about judges' alleged favoritism toward particular lawyers practicing in their courts. Each year
thousands of people's lives and deaths end up in the hands of probate judges in Texas, who hold sweeping power over their liberty and assets. And
naturally those probate fees can be controversial, as they're often drawn from the private accounts or estates of the people the courts are charged with
Advocates like Debby Valdez allege the system makes it too easy for attorneys to drain estates through long, drawn-out litigation, with judges scratching
the backs of attorneys who helped them get re-elected. "Every court, whether it's probate or some other court, the judges are going to make sure they've
taken care of their own," one local longtime probate attorney told the Current.
In the cases of Dahlman and her brother, who was also investigated as to whether he could take care of himself, Smith's firm reaped nearly $140,000 from
Dahlman's trust between January 2011 and May 2012. Rickhoff appointed Bailey roughly $40,000 for his investigation into Dahlman, which argued against
the testimony of three forensic psychiatrists, and $18,000 for an investigation into Dahlman's brother. According to OCA and Bexar County records, Bailey was
also awarded $124,000 in fees for two other probate cases between September 2011 and June 2012, making him by far the largest recipient of the
$401,647 in fees Rickhoff paid out so far this fiscal year (the next highest-paid attorney got $17,000 from Rickhoff across multiple probate cases).
When reached by phone last week, Rickhoff said he couldn't comment on Dahlman's case, but insisted there's no favoritism in how he appoints attorneys.
"I think there were only three (attorneys) that didn't support me, so they're all contributing, they all support me," he said, adding, "What can you do about it?"
(That is a big ass biting lie...I could name you dozens of attorneys that are forming a "Get rid of Rickhoff
group" at this moment
He also said there are "some really reliable, heavy-hitters who are real trustworthy," like Bailey, who come through his court, that he assigns to complex
cases. (By real trustworthy Rickhoff means he can always count on them for campaign money )
In a fax he later sent to the Current, Rickhoff wrote, "Since I pay lawyers the least of all probate judges in the State of Texas, I am surprised that any of them
support me or that I am criticized for paying too much." (The problem is he only pays a dozen or so lawyers ALL the money and he makes sure they win
and get paid.)
Three forensic psychiatrists would eventually disagree with Bailey, declaring that Dahlman is mentally fit and capable of spending her money as she pleases
— though she might be better served by keeping a closer eye on her checkbook balance, one psychiatrist wrote. Still, despite three expert opinions to the
contrary, a court-appointed investigator and lawyers for Dahlman's three daughters continued to push for guardianship, and over the course of the summer
Dahlman had to continue to fight for her financial freedom in court while also fighting nearly $100,000 in fees attorneys tried to draw from her estate.
"They're going to bankrupt Mary for the foreseeable future just so they can get paid in full," Dahlman's attorney Phil Ross said as he exited a court hearing
in July. +
As guardianships rise, advocates in Texas and elsewhere claim cabals of judges, close-knit networks of probate attorneys, and guardianship organizations
are free to pilfer the pocketbooks of the elderly and vulnerable, wrongly seizing possessions, kicking folks into nursing homes and hospices before their
time, splitting up estates and separating parents from their disabled children. "After seeing many of these cases play out, I've boiled it down to this: it's the
deception of protection," said Debby Valdez, a vocal San Antonio-based activist behind the advocacy group Guardianship Reform Advocates for the Disabled
and Elderly (GRADE), whose members regularly testify at committee hearings at the Texas Legislature. GRADE gets regular calls and emails from families
across the state, Valdez says, the common element being family members severed from aging parents or disabled children without knowledge, or those
frightened and confused over the prospect of having their lives, finances, and futures put in the hands of court-appointed guardians. With GRADE's bullhorn,
many families have stepped forward in recent years accusing courts of needlessly taking control of elderly people and their estates. Valdez recently helped
speak out for James Pride, 78, an Air Force veteran from the Dallas area who awoke from a stroke in 2010 to find the court had appointed a guardian ove
r him and frozen his assets. And Valdez says it's been a long, hard, and costly road trying to get his personal and financial freedom back.
Similar stories have played out in Bexar County courts. One woman woke from a horrific car wreck to find she'd been appointed a guardian (in Rickoff's court)
and declared incompetent to touch her own money. In the process of regaining her freedom, she wound up on the street while local attorneys pulled
thousands from her life savings in court-approved fees.
Lawyers drained hundreds of thousands of dollars from Mary Dahlman's estate while arguing she couldn't manage her own finances, though three medical
experts testified to the contrary.
And one San Antonio woman, after years of fighting for guardianship of her disabled daughter in Bexar and Travis counties, has now been completely cut off
from her daughter after a court-appointed guardian terminated visits last month. ...... read more at ~http://www.estateofdenial.com/2012/09/14/how-judges-probate