Flashback: San Antonio probate courts exposed (TX)

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A couple of 2006 media items on the San Antonio probate courts were recently called to our attention.  While these items are a few years old, the players mentioned are still in position.  One has to wonder if when the court opens tomorrow, business as usual will entail some unusual business.

From an Oct. 31, 2006, San Antonio Current post:

Flinging the shhh …

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.

An additional link which appears to be from a Dec. 16, 2005, San Antonio Express-News article provides interesting insight as to case assignments between the two San Antonio probate courts.  Note that Estate of Denial® does not consider this information confirmed as an original story link has not been located.  We therefore post it for your consideration with this disclaimer.

TEXAS:

The system for assigning incoming cases to Bexar County’s two probate justices could not be simpler: Judge Polly Spencer gets the odd-numbered ones and Judge Tom Rickhoff gets the evens.

The alternating system, prescribed by state law, is designed to discourage lawyers from picking the judge they want to hear a particular case.

But according to courthouse regulars, the safeguards are foiled easily.  “Judge shopping” is alive and well, said lawyers who often argue cases before Spencer and Rickhoff and therefore asked not to be named.

“Lawyers are picking the judge based on whom they think would be best for their case,” one experienced probate lawyer said.

The easiest way, this lawyer said, is to come to the clerk’s office with two or three routine probate cases and, by filing those first, figure out the judge assignment pattern. Once that’s clear, the important case can be filed with the judge of choice.

But there are less obvious ways to pick a judge, “other techniques for staying out of a court that you haven’t figured out yet,” the lawyer remarked, declining to elaborate.

Repeatedly irked by the practice, Rickhoff last month wrote letters to court officials complaining about it and asking that a random assignment system be installed.

“Forum shopping is a direct affront to fair and impartial justice,” Rickhoff wrote.

He said his public complaint was prompted by the filing of a high-profile case involving Lillian Glasser, a New Jersey widow with a $25 million estate.

The hotly contested Glasser case landed in Spencer’s court this spring after K.T. Whitehead, the lawyer who was then handling it, first filed 2 uncomplicated wills for people who had died months earlier.

Whitehead then filed the Glasser case, and Rickhoff believes this wasn’t accidental.

“The Glasser case generated the letter, and the Glasser case is none of my business except for the forum-shopping part, which I believe I have a duty to eliminate,” Rickhoff said.

Whitehead, who filed the Glasser case at 11:51 a.m., March 14, minutes after filing 2 others, did not return calls seeking comment. Her office workers referred calls to Ricardo Cedillo, now the lead lawyer in the Glasser case.

Cedillo said he knew nothing about how the case was filed but unloaded on Rickhoff for involving himself in a case that is being heard in another court.

“I don’t know if K.T. did or did not do anything. But as a lawyer, if there is a way to protect your client by steering the case away from a judge with Judge Rickhoff’s track record, you owe it to your client to use every legitimate means,” he said.

“For Judge Rickhoff to be doing this, calling attention to himself, is an insult to Judge Spencer,” he said.

Spencer said she has no idea if the case ended up in her court by accident or design, or even if judge shopping is commonplace at the courthouse, but she called it an abuse of the system.

“There might be people who are avoiding me or people who might want to be here,” she said. “There might be times I suspect that’s what happened, but once the case is here, it’s my job to hear it.”

Probate court regulars gave a variety of reasons why one might seek to put a particular case in one court or the other, and several admitted to doing it.

“I’ve done it, but I can only think of one time,” said one lawyer, who said some female attorneys avoid Rickhoff’s court because of a perception of bias and a lack of confidence in his rulings and knowledge of the law.

“I really don’t think it has anything to do with the strengths or weaknesses of the judges. Rickhoff doesn’t like female attorneys. He also doesn’t like guardianships. He thinks it’s a waste of time,” said the lawyer.

Another female lawyer, however, said while this perception about Rickhoff was common among women when he first took the bench, it no longer holds true.

Rickhoff said, “I’ve never had that complaint and I don’t believe it’s a problem.”

Yet another lawyer, however, admitted to seeking out Rickhoff’s court for the speed with which the judge handles cases that might otherwise get bogged down before Spencer.

“Generally, lawyers are trying to get out of Spencer’s court. She has a difficult time controlling lawyers. Her office is chaos. Matters that should be routine languish on her desk for months,” the lawyer said.

The lawyer, however, said Spencer’s court is clearly better for certain cases.

“If it’s a complicated trust matter with a tax issue, it’s a no-brainer.  You want Polly Jackson Spencer. If it’s a contested, litigated will, you want Judge Rickhoff. I think that’s the way most lawyers are approaching it,” the lawyer said.

Still another experienced probate lawyer said judge shopping is not widespread.

“The perception among those of us who have been doing cases in probate court for years is there are probably three or four attorneys who forum shop,” said this lawyer. “Can you do it? Yeah. Are there unprofessional lawyers who are doing it? Yeah. But it just means you can’t handle yourself in front of either judge.”

Probate Judge Guy Herman of Austin, who is about to become the state’s presiding statutory probate judge, was among those receiving Rickhoff’s November letter about judge shopping.

“There’s nothing I can do about it until January. I’ll stick my nose into it at that point. It seems to me there ought to be a way to fix it under the current system,” Herman said.

Judge Rickhoff’s brother, Bexar County Clerk Gerry Rickhoff, said he is trying to fix the system. He said he tried to discourage judge shopping a couple of years ago by removing the clerk’s log book from public view, so lawyers could not see which judge was next up for a case.

He said he also inquired about using a random number generator, but learned it did not conform to the state statute.

The practice continues, he said.

“I was in the presence of attorneys who shall remain unnamed. They were basically laughing about steering cases. When they start talking about it in front of me, it’s untenable,” he said.

Gerry Rickhoff said he is still looking for a system allowable under the law that cannot be manipulated by lawyers.

“Hopefully we can get it resolved. Judge assignment is a hot-button issue in probably every courthouse in Texas,” he said.

(source: San Antonio Express-News)

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  • Katrina Rogers

    Why would Judge Rickhoff be against female lawyers when is own daughter is going to St Mary’s Law School to become a lawyer?!?