Editorial note: This is the sixteenth in our series of electronic interviews with candidates for Statewide and Harris County offices. We have sent questionnaires to every candidate on the ballot, given we could find a working email address. We have printed their answers verbatim as we receive them. If you are or work for such a candidate, and we did not send a questionnaire, please contact us <email@example.com>.
Kim Hoesl, Democratic candidate for Harris County Probate Court #1
Texpatriate: What is your name?
KH: My name is Kim Bohannon Hoesl.
T: What office are you seeking?
KH: I am the Democratic candidate for judge of Harris County Probate Court No. One.
T: Please list all the elected or appointed POLITICAL (including all Judicial) offices you have previously held, and for what years you held them.
KH: I have not held elected office before.
T: What is your political party?
KH: Democratic Party.
T: What is a specific case in which you disagree with actions undertaken by the incumbent?
KH: I cannot answer this question for a number of reasons. First, in the probate courts, the actual filings in cases have only become publicly available in the last few weeks. Prior to that, it was simply not possible to readily access all the written pleadings and orders in a case, even if they were all publicly available. Second, as a judicial candidate, I cannot prejudge situations. Until the facts are presented to me in accordance with the law, I cannot state what my decision would be in any given situation, other than to say I would follow the law. Similarly, I cannot state whether I would rule differently in a given situation.
T: What is a contentious issue that you believe the Court will face in the near future? Why is it important? How would you solve it?
KH: I see a significant issue on the horizon with the subject of ad litem appointments. In our probate bar, there is a definite impression of what some may call “cronyism.” In other words, the small probate bench and the small probate bar are very familiar with each other.
Harris County probate courts employ an appointment system for the appointment of ad litem attorneys in certain cases. The informal nature of the system and the familiarity of the bench and bar do not promote much confidence in the impartiality or fairness of the system. Instead, this situation invites the perception that the judges and the attorneys are too cozy, often using the appointments as rewards. When a litigant sees the attorneys in their dispute in cozy conversation with the bench, or learns that the opposing attorney handles many appointments from the court, it is not surprising that the litigant may believe the deck is already stacked against them.
Regardless of whether actual favoritism exists, it is the appearance of favoritism that is a problem. I bring independence to the bench because my background is from outside the probate bar. I stand apart from those attorneys and from the alliances among them. I intend to fulfill the role of the impartial justice, beholden to no lawyer or firm, relying solely upon the law and the facts. For appointments, I will endeavor to develop a selection system based on the needs of the litigant and the qualifications of the attorney, and nothing else. I believe that is the only way that justice can be served.
When I worked in the Administrative Office of the District Courts in the 1990s, one of my job functions was to implement and run a system to qualify attorneys for criminal appointments. At that time, the District Courts were concerned with having qualified attorneys available for indigent defendants and with eliminating the perceived, and perhaps real, bias in using appointments to reward judicial supporters.
This is a very real problem in the family courts even today, and the probate courts are not immune to these same concerns. I intend to develop a database-system, hopefully in conjunction with the other probate Courts, where information on attorneys seeking ad litem appointments can be maintained in a way that the Court can access randomly-selected, qualified attorneys for any particular case.
T: Do you believe that the incumbent has specifically failed at her or his job? If so, why?
KH: I am running for judge of Probate Court No. One because I have the experience, skills, independence, and knowledge needed to bring fairness and justice to the probate bench. I am not running against the incumbent; I simply believe I am the better candidate for the job.
T: Why you, as opposed to your opponents?
KH: I have practiced civil and commercial litigation, including in the probate context, for over ten years. My practice involves a diverse range of cases including fiduciary litigation (for example, suits against corporate officers and directors, suits by and against executors and trustees), contract disputes, intellectual property disputes (trade secrets, copyright infringement), business divorce, personal injury, and, of course, probate and trust litigation.
My experience includes the full range of litigation activity, beginning with investigation, drafting pleadings, managing discovery, conducting depositions, working with experts, selecting juries, managing trials, and following through with appeals. I have argued legal issues before trial courts and probate courts, before the First Court of Appeals, and before the Texas Supreme Court. Finally, my practice includes transactional matters such as business filings, will drafting, probating wills, and working with executors and trustees.
In my experience, the first thing a client wants is an estimate of their chances of winning in a particular dispute. As their attorney, one of my jobs is to evaluate the facts and the law as they apply to the dispute, and then provide some information on the client’s position so that the client may make an informed decision in their case. In order to do that, however, I have to assume that the judge will listen to the facts, will know the law, and will fairly and justly apply the law to those facts. In practice, this assumption is far too often wrong. I am running to correct that, and to provide a fair forum for litigants to have their cases heard.
T: What role do you think a County Probate Judge should have individually? What role do you think the County Probate Courts should have as a whole?
KH: When a litigant comes to the probate court, they are usually dealing with very intimate and personal family matters that involve loss, grief, and pain. Perhaps a loved one has recently passed away and their estate needs to be settled. Perhaps a beloved parent has reached a point where they can no longer take care of themselves, and a guardianship is needed. These events in our lives are difficult enough, even when there is no dispute involved.
However, if there is a dispute, such as a family member contesting the will or claiming that an executor breached a fiduciary duty, we end up with a very different scenario. Now, the pain of this family loss is drawn out in a legal battle that strains family relationships and drains family budgets. Here is where the kind of judge on the bench can make a huge difference in the justice that the litigants receive. An experienced probate judge can shepherd the dispute effectively, ensuring that the law is upheld and that justice is served in a timely and efficient manner. A judge with little litigation experience, on the other hand, can prolong the already-too long process, increase the family trauma, and essentially deny the litigants any effective resolution.
I also believe the Court should keep open lines of communication with the community. There is a need to ensure that all people know the justice system belongs to everyone, not just a chosen few. It is important that people understand the need to execute wills and other documents to protect their interests. To the extent permitted, I would like the Court to be a resource for information and education in this area.
T: Would role do you think mandatory mediation should have in Probate law?
KH: Because mediation can be a very useful tool, saving litigants both time and money, I would encourage litigants to consider mediation. However, I am not likely to require it in all cases because there are some cases where mediation simply will not be effective.
T: What are your thoughts on the partisan election of Judges?
KH: I am a fan of the election of judges. Our democratic process depends on the involvement of our citizens. Electing judges is one way to get them involved. However, I am also a supporter of term limits for judges. Every practicing attorney has at least one experience with a judge who has been on the bench so long that the judge has decided he or she knows better than the law. Once a judge has turned cynical, he or she is no longer capable of hearing the facts with unbiased ears. When a judge is unwilling to listen to the facts of a case, or is convinced of their own knowledge as to which side should win or lose, there can be no justice.
T: What are the three most important issues to you, and what is at least one thing you have done to address each of them?
KH: I presume that the scope of this question is not limited to the bench or even to the practice of law. One issue very important to me is education. Education was my saving grace, giving me opportunities I otherwise would not enjoy. I want all children to have the same opportunities. To that end, I try to be involved in my children’s education, and to share my career with them as much as possible so that they will see the law as a possible future for themselves. For example, I participated as a judge in a debate competition at my daughter’s high school last year. In the past, I have arranged for children to visit the courts, meet the judges, and learn about our justice system. While in law school, I arranged for the international law students to do the same.
In a similar vein, I have great concern for a relatively unknown population of children in need – adolescents in CPS custody who age out without ever having been adopted. These kids generally spend their teen years bouncing among foster homes and youth shelters. They have little in the way of quality family support. Then, on their 18th birthday, they are expected to become productive citizens overnight. The HAY Center (part of CPS) works with these kids to transition them into adulthood. I have been involved with the Houston Bar Association committee that provides assistance to the HAY Center. This year, I am co-chair of that committee.
Finally, I believe very much in the virtue of tolerance—tolerance for differing opinions, tolerance for differing backgrounds. Personally, I strive to remind myself that not everyone has to agree with me on all things, and that we can disagree civilly with each other. This ability is critically lacking in much of society today. To combat that deficiency, my husband and I work on modeling tolerance for our children, something that we had many opportunities to do during the 2012 election season because my husband is a life-long Republican and I am a stalwart Democrat. Yet, we can maintain our respect for each other even when we discuss our differing opinions as we did while helping our daughter understand the substance of the presidential debates for her social studies homework.
There are many other opportunities to practice tolerance as well, such as defending the rights of the LGBT community, combating the still pervasive systemic racism in our society, and protecting the rights of women to make their own health and life choices. In my circle of friends and family, we do not all have the same opinions on these issues. But we learn to respect the right of people to hold whatever opinions they choose, as long as those opinions do not interfere with the rights of others. This is, I believe, the heart of the Democratic Party – we are the Big Tent, welcoming all, even those who disagree with us, because all people are created equal, entitled to hold whatever opinion their conscience dictates, with the understanding that the mere pinion of one person can never justify abrogating the rights of another.