Saturday, June 2, 2012

Lawyers giving judges cash typical, troubling

Two bottles of Scotch and plenty of beer.

A gaggle of probate attorneys gathered at a law office to drink and discuss the re-election of a probate judge.

And finally, the judge himself, dropping by with a list of names of other attorneys who could be persuaded to contribute money to his re-election campaign.

That scene unfolded in 2010. It was recalled this week in a Bexar County courtroom.

Intriguing? Yes.

Troubling? Perhaps.

Unusual? Not at all.

Attorney Phil Ross on Thursday tried to convince Judge David Peeples it was unusual enough to require the recusal of Judge Tom Rickhoff in a guardianship case.

At the hearing, Ross accused Rickhoff of unfairly favoring Mark Stanton Smith, the attorney at whose office the lawyers had met to discuss bundling cash for Rickhoff.

Smith is representing a bank in a case related to the guardianship of Mary Dahlman, Ross' client.

Peeples, however, was correct to stop Ross from delving too deeply into these details. Before he'd consider the fairness of Rickhoff's rulings, the judge would first have to agree that the relationship between Smith and Rickhoff was inappropriate.

As Peeples put it: Before Ross could prove there's fire, he would first have to prove there's smoke.

So Ross called Smith to the stand, asking him to describe his relationship with Rickhoff.

The attorney said he and the judge were not close friends. They'd been to lunch three times. He'd contributed money to Rickhoff's re-election campaign.

"It's a typical thing that I do to the judges that are in the courts," Smith said.

With relish, Ross reminded Smith about the cash-bundling meeting at his law office.

Smith admitted there'd been two in 2010, others in 2006. The attorneys had agreed to call about 20 people each and solicit cash for the judge's re-election.

At one meeting, Rickhoff had shown up with U.S. Congressman Lamar Smith.

"There was a lot of laughing, joking, having a good time," Mark Smith said.

He added, "The idea that you have that Judge Rickhoff is somehow favoring me or my clients is baloney."

Ross then called William Bailey, an attorney also present at the cash-bundling meetings.

Last year, Rickhoff appointed Bailey to decide whether Dahlman, Ross' client, was incapacitated and unable to manage a $20 million trust.

Bailey concluded that she was; Rickhoff appointed Bailey as her guardian, a decision that Ross says benefits Bailey and Mark Smith.

On the stand, Bailey grew indignant at the notion that his fundraising for Rickhoff had affected Rickhoff's judgment in the courtroom.

He burst into laughter when Ross asked, "How long did the meeting last with the beer-drinking and the whiskey-drinking?"

Later, Bailey said, "We were all concerned about the re-election of Judge Rickhoff because he's such an outstanding judge."

Before ruling whether Ross had proved smoke, Peeples seemed aware he was considering an issue that far transcended one judge.

"If you are correct," Peeples said, "potentially, wouldn't (this affect) every judge in cases involving lawyers that help them significantly in their campaigns, more than just contributing money, contributing a big sum of money, work for them, send out letters, work the poll for a morning on election day, put out the yard signs, all these judges that got some of these lawyers in their court?"

Peeples denied the motion for recusal.

But this was not a denial of smoke. It was an acknowledgment, rather, of so much smoke in the courtrooms of elected judges across Texas, it's impossible to find any fire.

It's also another reason that Texas needs to find a new way to pick judges.

By Brian Chasnoff, Express-News columnist,

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