Editorial note: James Horwitz, the father of Editorial Board member Noah M. Horwitz, is the Democratic candidate for Probate Court No. 4. While we have sent questions to both candidates and will be publishing a completed questionnaire by James Horwitz, we have decided to not offer an endorsement in or otherwise cover that race between him and incumbent Judge Christine Butts, a Republican.
One of the candidates for these courts always opens his remarks by noting that the Probate Courts hold a special place for the residents of Harris County. Ideally, one will never have to experience the process of Criminal Courts as a victim, witness or defendant. Likewise, with squabbles over money at Civil Courts or divorce at Family Courts. But every person close to you, and then yourself, will eventually die. The Probate Courts serve as a legal bookend for this inevitability, presiding over the distribution of an individual’s estate. They also deal with guardianship and mental health hearings.
Obviously, compassion and expertise is needed for these benches. Dealing with the elderly and deceased is an obviously sensitive subject that requires restrained jurists, willing to always hold themselves with integrity and respect. This board has found a number of key policy disagreements that we have with the incumbent Republican judges. In the three contest we will make a pick in, we choose the three Democrats.
First and foremost, we have been disturbed to see the cozy relationship — one that hovers around the line of impropriety — that judges take in recruiting and appointing ad litems. These coveted positions should not merely be the product of a spoils system between officeholders and their political friends, but should reflect the best and brightest of the legal system.
Probate Courts are also renowned for having somewhat light dockets. Compared to their absolutely swamped colleagues at the Criminal Court, these courts have comparably few cases. In fact, a compelling point could be made to reduce the number of courts, saving the County and its taxpayers money, if some simple and fiscally prudent actions are taken. First, in disputed probate matters, the Courts should rely more on mandatory mediation before full court proceedings are initialized. The practice is already commonplace in Family Courts, and could have the effect of significantly reducing the case load.
Furthermore, only the Democratic candidates have been vocal about the need to provide education throughout the county on the importance of probate planning. The families of those who die with a valid will can often wrap up their court experience somewhat rapidly. Comparably, the families of those who die intestate (that is, without a will) take up a far bigger portion of the court’s time. Quite literally, the amount of court time saved by implementing such policies could put these candidates out of a job if courts are consolidated. But these candidates aren’t merely looking for a paycheck from Harris County, they’re looking to help the residents of Harris County.
Finally, perhaps most importantly, this board has looked for open-minded candidates for these courts. In the next few years, unique conundrums will likely arise in these courts, such as the question of a common-law married same sex couple. For example, if two men who were legally married in another state (a union, therefore, currently recognized by the Federal Government) were residing in Texas, and one such man died without a will, would the court consider recognizing his husband as his common-law spouse? State ethical rules, of course, prohibit candidates from publicly opining on such issues, but we have tried our best to find candidates who would approach this conundrum ethically and compassionately.
COUNTY PROBATE COURT #1
Judge Loyd Wright, seeking a second term in office, has done a passable job on the bench. A Republican, the Houston Chronicle thought the most impressive action from his first term was getting a staff member to answer the court’s phone during business hours. I guess this is a good thing, but those are some pretty comically low standards. Harris County simply deserves better.
Wright has also made a point of not separating partisanship from the bench. From his official online social media accounts, he often espouses divisive political rhetoric that has little to do with the administration of probate courts. Tropes over the supposed “cultural war” and quotes galore from Rush Limbaugh line the page. Now, unless the infamous shock-jock has made some recent comments we are not aware of pertaining to wills and trusts, this is just inappropriate.
His Democratic opponent, Kim Hosel, is herself a tremendously experienced attorney who would not make the same mistakes. Impartial and compassionate, we have no doubt that Hosel would be a superior judge in all the issues we delineated above: ad litems, mediation, education and open-mindedness.
Accordingly, this board endorses Kim Hoesl for County Probate Judge #1.
COUNTY PROBATE COURT #2
Judge Mike Wood, a six-term incumbent, is a very well versed and qualified jurist. A former President of the National College of Probate Judges, he is uniquely situated to lead the court. Once again, if your number one goal is stability in the court and an efficient docket, we have no choice but to recommend Wood, a Republican, for re-election. He is a good judge who has, and would continue to, serve Harris County well.
But his opponent is also remarkably qualified. Serving both as a Municipal Judge in Houston (on two different occasions), as well as a Civil District Judge, Josefina Rendon, a Democrat, has more than 30 years of experience on the bench. If there is anyone who would have even more experience in the courthouse than Wood, it might just be Rendon.
In addition to her tremendous experience, Rendon also strikes us as the right choice on those same contentious issues. While in office as a Civil District Judge, her courtroom was a model of ethical behavior, among other praises. She has also pledged to seek out mediation with more vigor and work toward educational goals in the community. Both of which are admirable aspirations worthy of our support.
Accordingly, this board endorses Josefina Rendon for County Probate Court #2.
COUNTY PROBATE COURT #3
We do not often go out of our way to speak ill of a public servant. Thus, in most of these contentious judicial races, we will have good things to say even about the candidate we choose not to endorse. Unfortunately, this race is simply not one of them. Judge Rory Olsen, a Republican, seeking his fifth term on the bench, has morphed into the epitome of what is referred to in courtroom politics as “black robe syndrome.” Rude, abrasive and petty with counsel — especially those he may have a political disagreement therewith — all too often, Olsen has figuratively transformed his courtroom into a personal fiefdom. By losing the respect of those we must practice law with, Olsen has lost much of his legitimacy as a judge.
His Democratic opponent, on the other hand, Jerry Simoneaux, is a true breath of fresh air. A longtime probate attorney, Simoneaux has many years of experience as both an attorney in private practice and as staffing attorney for a Probate Court. With valuable experience on both the inside and the outside oft he process, we have no doubt that Simoneaux would be ready to lead on day one. Further, we have every reason to believe that Simoneaux would otherwise be an ethical, compassionate and intellectual jurist. He’s beyond the shadow of a doubt the right choice.
Accordingly, this board endorses Jerry Simoneaux for County Probate Court #3.
The Texpatriate Editorial Board is comprised of Noah M. Horwitz & Olivia Arena of Austin, George Bailey of Boston, Luis Fayad of College Station and Andrew Scott Romo of New Orleans. Editorials represent a majority of the voting board.