The elderly woman can barely speak yet she was heard in the state’s highest circles, or so I hoped.
“I live in the real world,” Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Rebecca White Berch told me in 2010. “I’ve read your columns. They cause concern and I just think that (in) any system, it’s a good idea to take a look at all of your processes and make sure things are working the way they’re supposed to work.”
Marie Long’s story prompted both court and legislative reviews of Arizona’s Probate Court system. As a result, important changes were made, changes designed to ensure that the most vulnerable among us are protected rather than processed into the poorhouse.
But all of those vaunted reforms did nothing for Marie, who was left penniless by the system that was supposed to protect her.
Two courts have said that the probate commissioner overseeing Marie’s estate acted unethically and that the court-sanctioned siphoning of her bank account was “inexcusable.”
They just did nothing about it.
Now, Marie has one final chance for a fair hearing. The state Supreme Court has been asked to review what happened to the 90-year-old widow and decide whether she will get an opportunity to get some of her money back.
“The idea that Marie is on welfare, doesn’t have the money to go out to lunch with her lady friends, or to get her teeth fixed, or to buy a new hat to wear to church, is just outrageous,” said attorney Candess Hunter, who along with Isabel Humphrey is volunteering her services to Marie’s case.
Marie came under the “protection” of probate in 2005, after suffering a stroke and then a family dispute over where and how she would live.
By 2009, her $1.3 million in assets were gone, much of her wealth sucked up by attorneys and fiduciaries under the not-so-watchful eye of Commissioner Lindsay Ellis.
In March 2010, Ellis ruled that those attorneys and fiduciaries were justified in helping themselves to $840,000 for three years’ work. Her 21-page ruling lambasted Marie’s lawyers, people who for years had been working for free. Ellis wrote that their “venomous” attacks challenging the six-figure bills forced the fiduciaries and lawyers on the other side to defend themselves.
With Marie’s money, naturally.
Two months after Ellis’ ruling, we learned that Ellis had had her judicial assistant send an advance copy of her decision to select attorneys — the ones who wound up with Marie’s money — and that one of the lawyers replied that she “could not be happier.”
I suppose not. Attorney Brenda Church’s law firms collected nearly $324,000.
Such e-mails between a judge and one side in a contested case are called ex-parte communications and they’re supposed to be a big no-no. Turns out they’re more like a wink-wink-nod-nod.
A Superior Court judge said that Ellis violated the Arizona Code of Judicial Conduct. But just because she was communicating with one side in the case doesn’t prove she was biased, he wrote.
Not when she refused to hear Marie’s repeated petitions to stop the bleeding. Not when she allowed the now-defunct Sun Valley Group to collect $430,000 by acting both as Marie’s guardian and her for-profit care provider, despite rules prohibiting such conduct.
In May, the Court of Appeals called the draining of Marie’s savings “inexcusable” and the e-mails “highly inappropriate” and “unacceptable.”
Then it, too, found no evidence of bias.
Now, Marie is turning to the Supreme Court. Her attorneys are asking for a new trial before an unbiased judge. Even the appearance of bias, they wrote, “threatens the integrity of the judicial system.”
Meanwhile, attorneys for Sun Valley Group and Church are urging the court to pass, citing the appellate court’s ruling that the “mere appearance” of judicial impropriety is not enough to prove prejudice.
Not in their world, perhaps.
In my world, a judge who slips rulings to one side — the side that pocketed an old lady’s life savings — has gone beyond appearing biased.
She’s demonstrated it.
In my world, it’s not OK for courts to proclaim it “inexcusable” to protect an old lady into the poorhouse but then OK for the protectors with all of her money to keep it. It’s just not.
A couple of years ago, Justice Berch vowed to review probate, assuring me she wanted to “make sure things are working the way they’re supposed to work.”
Court can right wrong done to widow
July 17, 2012
The Arizona Republic