The chief judge of Wayne County Probate Court refused Friday to remove one of his colleagues from presiding over the estate of Rosa Parks, the late civil rights icon.
Judge Milton Mack Jr. said attorney Steven Cohen of Farmington Hills failed to present any evidence to justify removing Judge Freddie Burton Jr. from the estate, which has been embroiled in controversy since Parks died in 2005.
“There has been no showing of personal bias,” Mack said after a 30-minute hearing, adding that Cohen’s decision to sue Burton and then demand his removal from the case amounted to “naked forum shopping.”
Cohen has accused Burton of allowing Detroit probate lawyers John Chase Jr. and Melvin Jefferson Jr. to drain the estate with excessive and unnecessary legal fees. Cohen said Burton improperly dismissed his suit and then rejected Cohen’s motion to disqualify himself.
Cohen represents Elaine Steele, Parks’ longtime personal assistant, and the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development, which the two women formed in the 1980s. Parks left the bulk of her estate to Steele and the institute.
“This case should be a warning to the people of Wayne County that the probate court judges do not believe their authority is limited in any manner,” Cohen said after court, vowing to appeal the rulings of both judges. “If a judge can dismiss a case in which he is a defendant, then he can do anything.”
Lawyers for Chase and Jefferson told Mack that Burton has been nothing but fair and impartial.
“There is no judicial taint on my clients, only scandalous and scurrilous statements made about my clients,” attorney Alan May told Mack, calling Chase and Jefferson highly respected lawyers.
May now wants Burton to remove Cohen from the case.
Parks’ nieces and nephews challenged the validity of Parks’ estate, saying Steele unduly influenced Parks to leave the bulk of her estate to her and the institute.
Burton put Chase and Jefferson in charge and left them in place even after the parties settled their differences.
In December, the Michigan Supreme Court ordered Burton to put Steele and retired 36th District Judge Adam Shakoor back in charge, in keeping with Parks’ wishes.
The high court also reversed Burton’s order requiring Steele and the institute to forfeit their 80% share of Parks’ historically valuable belongings and rights to license Parks’ name.
A New York City auction house is trying to find an institution to purchase the collection to put on public display.
Last week, Wayne County Probate Judge Terrance Keith threatened Cohen with criminal contempt for alleging in another estate dispute that the court operates under an unwritten playbook that allows favored lawyers to pilfer estates.
Judge refuses to oust colleague from overseeing Rosa Parks estate
July 20, 2012
Detroit Free Press
The chief judge of Wayne County Probate Court refused today to remove one of his colleagues from continuing to preside over the estate of Rosa Parks, the late civil rights icon.
Judge Milton Mack Jr. said attorney Steven G. Cohen of Farmington Hills failed to present any evidence to justify removing Judge Freddie Burton Jr. from the estate, which has been embroiled in controversy since Parks died in 2005.
“There has been no showing of personal bias,” Mack said after a 30-minute hearing, adding that Cohen’s decision to sue Burton and then demand his removal from the case amounted to “naked forum shopping” — which the Michigan Supreme Court prohibits.
Cohen had accused Burton in court papers — Cohen called it a lawsuit and opposing lawyers called it a petition — of conspiring with Detroit probate lawyers John Chase Jr. and Melvin Jefferson Jr. by allowing them to gouge the estate with excessive and unnecessary legal fees. Cohen said Burton improperly dismissed the lawsuit and then rejected Cohen’s disqualification motion.
Lawyers for Chase and Jefferson praised Mack’s ruling, saying Burton has been nothing but fair and impartial in handling Parks’ estate.
Troy attorney Alan May, who represents Chase, said Cohen has unfairly maligned Burton, Chase and Jefferson.
“There is no judicial taint on my clients, only scandalous and scurrilous statements made about my clients,” May said.
He said he plans to ask Burton to remove Cohen from representing the estate’s primary beneficiaries — Elaine Steele and the institute Steele founded with Parks in 1987.
Attorney Lawrence Pepper, who represents Parks’ nieces and nephews — they challenged the validity of Parks’ estate plan — said, “Judge Burton has been nothing but a gentleman” in his handling of the estate dispute. Pepper said the heirs want Burton to continue presiding over the estate.
Cohen said he plans to appeal Mack’s decision.
“This case should be a warning to the people of Wayne County that the probate court judges do not believe their authority is limited in any manner,” Cohen said after the hearing. “If a judge can dismiss a case in which he is a defendant, then he can do anything.”
After the hearing, Mack sent the lawyers down the hall to Burton’s court, where Burton scheduled a Sept. 11 session to review the financial accounts of the estate.
The battle over Parks estate began when her 13 nieces and nephews challenged the validity of her estate plan. Burton put Chase and Jefferson in charge of the estate in place of Parks’ designees — Steele, Parks’ longtime personal assistant, and retired 36th District Court Judge Adam Adam Shakoor.
The relatives, who had accused Steele of taking advantage of the aging Parks, eventually settled their differences with Steele and the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development.
The parties signed a confidential agreement that gave the relatives 20% of Parks’ property and royalties from licensing her name. The institute and Steele were to get the rest.
Though the agreement called for Burton to put Steele and Shakoor back in charge of the estate, Cohen said Burton refused, which allowed Chase and Steele to run up excessive legal bills.
After most of the cash was gone, Cohen said, Chase and Jefferson accused Cohen of disclosing part of the confidential settlement agreement during a hearing before the Michigan Court of Appeals. That prompted Burton to order Steele and the institute to forfeit their share of the estate. Burton said in court papers that he planned to give that share to a similar charity.
Guernsey’s Auctioneers of New York City has been trying to sell Parks’ historically valuable belongings to an institution that can put them on public display.
Chase and Jefferson, who are prominent probate lawyers, have denied any wrongdoing. The Michigan Court of Appeals ruled that the fees were proper and that they alone recognized the value of Parks’ possessions, which were catalogued and turned over to Guernsey’s.
Last summer, Cohen asked the Supreme Court to overturn the lower court decisions.
In December and again in January, the Supreme Court ordered Burton to put Steele and Shakoor back in charge of the estate.
Burton reluctantly complied.
Since then, Cohen has complained that Burton has refused to give them control over Parks’ property, and has allowed Chase and Jefferson to hit up the estate for an additional $120,000 in legal fees.
One week ago, Wayne County Probate Judge Terrance Keith threatened Cohen with criminal contempt and vowed to report Cohen to the Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission for making what Keith described as outlandish, unsubstantiated and frivolous accusations about the probate court and opposing lawyers in the brawl over the estate of Don Barden, the late casino mogul.
In that case, as with the Parks estate, Cohen said Wayne County Probate Court operates according to an unwritten playbook that allows favored lawyers to corruptly charge excessive legal fees.
Chief judge rules Burton may continue presiding over Rosa Parks estate case
July 20, 2012
The Detroit News
Detroit — Wayne County’s chief probate judge on Friday denied a request to disqualify the judge who has presided over a six-year legal battle over the estate of civil rights icon Rosa Parks.
Chief Judge Milton L. Mack Jr. took up the matter weeks after Wayne Probate Judge Freddie G. Burton Jr. issued an opinion declining to step down from the case.
The request was filed in May by Steven G. Cohen, the attorney for the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development and its co-founder Elaine Steele. At the same time, Cohen also filed a separate petition accusing Burton and two court-appointed lawyers of conspiracy.
Cohen, in the petition against Burton and lawyers John M. Chase Jr. and Melvin D. Jefferson Jr., claimed financial disclosures provided by the attorneys, who handled cash from Parks’ estate, demonstrate “gross financial misconduct.”
When rejecting the motion to disqualify Burton, Mack noted that the Michigan Supreme Court has “rejected this tactic as a method of judge shopping.”
“There’s no showing of evidence of personal bias,” Mack said, noting Burton has been “fair and impartial” in his handling of the allegations and request to recuse himself. “There’s no evidence presented in the disqualification motion. It’s without merit.”
Cohen argued in court Friday that Burton in June dismissed the motion to disqualify himself without “findings, analysis or justification of any kind.” Burton also tossed out Cohen’s conspiracy petition.
Cohen said after Friday’s hearing that he plans to appeal Mack’s decision.
“I expected the judge to follow the law and I think he’s erroneous,” he said. “This case should be a warning to the people of Wayne County that there probate court judges do not believe their authority is limited in any manner.”
Cohen added that he’ll be appealing Burton’s dismissal of the conspiracy petition, a move he claims is improper since the judge is a defendant.
Alan May, an attorney for Chase and Jefferson, argued in court Friday that Cohen’s various claims were “scandalous and scurrilous” attempts to get Burton off the case.
After his ruling, Mack ordered all the attorneys to report immediately back to Burton’s court.
Burton scheduled a Sept. 11 hearing to go over accounting records kept by Chase and Jefferson over a four-year period documenting income and disbursements to and from the estate.
Parks died in 2005 at age 92.
The financial assets from her estate were left to the institute, while Steele was bequeathed personal property.
Relatives sued to overturn Parks’1998 will, alleging Steele, Parks’ longtime business associate and friend, exerted undue influence in its preparation. Steele denied the claims. A settlement was reached in February 2007.
In December, the state Supreme Court ordered Parks’ memorabilia to be returned to the nonprofit. The court also directed Chase and Jefferson be removed as estate fiduciaries.
The high court’s Dec. 29 ruling reversed an earlier decision by the Michigan Court of Appeals in favor of Parks’ heirs.
Parks’ memorabilia collection is estimated to be worth $8-10 million and remains at a New York auction house.