Editorial note: This is the twenty-fourth 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 <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
Further note: Editorial Board member Noah M. Horwitz took no part in the implementation or publication of this questionnaire. Unlike the other Probate Courts, Texpatriate did not offer an endorsement in Probate Court #4.
James Horwitz, Democratic candidate for Harris County Probate Court #4
Texpatriate: What is your name?
JH: My name is James Horwitz
T: What office are you seeking?
JH: I am the Democratic candidate for judge of Harris County Probate Court No. Four (4).
T: Please list all the elected or appointed POLITICAL (including all Judicial) offices you have previously held, and for what years you held them.
JH: I have not held elected office before.
T: What is your political party?
JH: Democratic Party.
T: What is a specific case in which you disagree with actions undertaken by the incumbent?
JH: Only recently have the actual filings in probate cases become easily been accessible to the public. As an attorney I hear many complaints from other probate practitioners concerning rulings from the bench in this court involving lack of legal knowledge of or failure to follow the Texas rules of civil procedure. While the cases are still pending in her court, it is not ethical of me to comment further on those matters
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?
JH: Two issues-
First there is the issue involving the “probate” club wherein probate judges appoint their favorite attorneys as guardians and/or ad litems. The process doesn’t pass the “smell” test and needs improvement by expanding the pool of possible guardians and attorney ad litems. The seminar wherein certification by the State Bar of Texas to act as either a guardian and/or attorney ad litem will be offered on Saturday mornings in my court and publicized widely. My appointments will be tailored to the needs of the individual party and/or ward requiring such appointment matched with the attorney whose qualifications and experience is the best fit. It is easy enough to create such a system. It takes the willingness to break away from “go along to get along’ system that currently exists. Although I have practiced probate law for 37 years, I am not by choice a member of the “probate” club. I have chosen in my practice to be free of any one label or specialty certification. I am independent and not beholding to the probate bar because of my varied and long background of practicing law.
The law provides family members with certain rights as addressed in probate court. The second issue involves the definition of what is a family. Every family is different and in the next 4 years (the term of office that I am seeking) the definition of what is a family is going to expand. It is up to judges at the lower court levels to not be afraid to follow the law as dictated by the laws of Texas and the Constitution of the United States. Our society and our community needs individuals with varied and balanced backgrounds as judges so as to make fair and impartial decisions based on the facts and constitutional law every time, balancing the needs of the individual versus the needs of society and not allow ideology or public pressure to dictate their decisions.
T: Do you believe that the incumbent has specifically failed at her or his job? If so, why?
JH: The incumbent is a young bright person. I believe I am the better candidate not because of any particular fault of the incumbent, but rather because there are no short cuts to experience and especially wisdom. I have practiced law for thirty seven (37) years, more than twice as long as my opponent. Before that I was a social worker working with families in crisis. When I began my legal practice, my opponent hadn’t even begun first grade. My experience counts. For thirty-seven (37) years, I have represented thousands of clients in estate planning and probate court as well as at all levels of the civil, criminal, family, and juvenile courts in Harris County, Texas, including also a multitude of other jurisdictions in Texas. My wisdom counts. My sound judgment has been gleaned from nearly four decades of work providing assistance to individuals and their families through my dedication to quality, my understanding of the foibles of people, and my understanding of the law.
My experience and wisdom is the result of working, now in my fourth decade, with the grieving, the divorced, the criminal, and the incompetent. I am also a husband, father, and grandfather with aging in-laws and special needs relatives – all of the above provides me with a unique perspective to understand and address the needs of those that come before me as a judge in probate court. Voters in Harris County should vote for me to bring an independent voice to the probate courts utilizing the law and fairness with compassion. I will follow Texas law as I know it with the upmost regard to the Constitution of the United States.
T: Why you, as opposed to your opponents?
JH: I believe my experience as a lawyer best matches up with that of my opponent. I began practicing law in 1977. The 4 existing probate judges were licensed respectfully in 1973, 1980, 1982, and my opponent in 1997. My law practice is now spent helping families cope with aging and the transitions required in moving assets between generations. My varied background outlined above beginning with my social work experience wherein I helped create and managed the first two halfway houses for runaway children in Harris County, Texas (Family Connection and the Sanddollar) as well as co-designing the test for licensing of all child-care administrators in the State of Texas as well as my legal work with the general public involved in business and the court system provides me with the tools necessary to be a judge in probate court. I have been endorsed by the AFL-CIO Council of Harris County, Texas, the Harris County Association of Trial Lawyers, the Harris County Democratic Lawyers Association, and the Houston LGBT Political Caucus.
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?
JH: Judges should be impartial but not isolated. Judges are elected from the community, and judges should be involved in the community. It is the civic duty of all elected officials to not only do their job well, but also to educate the public relevant to the governmental functions in their office. I believe one of the obligations of the job of probate judge is to educate the public on the methods by which individuals can use self reliance and simple actions in order to maximize their decision making on their own well being and estates so that the government role’s is minimized as to determining the most personal decisions in a person’s life. That is why I will speak to all interested members of the public, and not only lawyers, on these topics now and when elected.
Probate involves the administration of the distribution of the assets of a decedent (one who has died) according to the laws of descent and distribution if one has died without a Will such as by granting an Order of Administration giving judicial approval to the personal representative to administer matters of the estate, determines the validity of Wills, makes orders concerning the provisions of a valid Will (by issuing the Order Admitting a Will to Probate), rules on issues of breach of fiduciary duties by executors and administrators of estates.
In contested matters involving probate with a Will, a Probate Court examines the genuineness of a Will and/or whether the Will was made under duress or that the Will is not the last Will written by the deceased person. It is the job of the Probate Court to decide which Will is authentic. Once that determination is made, the Probate Court appoints an Executor to fulfill the terms of the Will. In many cases, an Executor is named in the Will and the court appoints that person. The Executor then executes the Will according to the deceased person’s wishes as stated in his/her Will. When age, diseases, and injuries impact our abilities to be self sufficient, the establishment of a guardianship can occur. A guardianship is a relationship established by a Probate Court between the person who needs help – called a ward – and the person or entity named by the court to help the ward. This person or entity is known as a guardian.
In Texas, a person does not have a guardian until an application to appoint one is filed with the court, a hearing is held and a judge then appoints a guardian. When the court appointment is made, the person the guardian cares for becomes the ward. There are different types of guardianships available in Texas. They are:
- Guardian of the person, full or limited
- Guardian of the estate, full or limited.
- Guardian of the person and estate.
- Temporary guardianship.
In addition to individuals, entities and guardianship programs can be appointed guardians. Guardians have legal responsibilities and are required to perform certain tasks and make reports to the Court while providing assistance to their wards.
The Probate Court should look at the individuals and programs willing to be guardians and base the appointment of guardians on several factors including: a preference to appointing a qualifying family member as guardian rather than guardianship programs or court appointed attorneys.
The Probate Court also should establish how much freedom a ward may have to make his/her own decisions. The Probate Court should decide limitations on a guardian’s authority.
T: Would role do you think mandatory mediation should have in Probate law?
JH: I would require parties to engage in mediation before trial occurs. Many parties absolutely believe mediation will not work, and yet discover, once they go through the process, that outstanding issues can be worked through and their case either partially or fully resolved. It is one of my tenants in life that people are entitled and obligated to participate in as many ways as possible in the decision making process that affects their lives. I would ask mediators that wish to be appointed by my court to attend meetings with me to discuss ways to be more effective mediators in my court.
T: What are your thoughts on the partisan election of Judges?
JH: I once ran for a position on Houston City Council. There was no “D” or “R” beside my name or the names of my opponent. The public had to learn about my public policy positions and not through the lens of a label. I am proud to be a Democrat and to have the core values of the Democratic Party. Nevertheless, one’s political party affiliation, while acknowledging that it is important, should not be the sole factor determining whether that candidate should be elected as a judge. A strong knowledge base, experience, and proper temperament should be the keystones of a good judge. Our democracy works to the degree our citizens are factually informed about the candidates and not swayed by party labels or spin. Additionally, I echo the comments of a fellow candidate in supporting term limits for judges. Electing judges is a community responsibility. That responsibility filters down to individuals doing their civic duty and seeking public office. There is no shortage of qualified individuals ready to assume the mantle of a judgeship.
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?
JH: (1) I bring knowledge and information to the general public about estate planning and the probate court. To that end, I have spoken to many groups on this topic. As I mentioned above, I want individuals to use self reliance and simple actions in order to maximize their decision making on their own well being and estates so that the government role’s is minimized as to determining the most personal decisions in a person’s life.
(2) I utilize the community resources in Harris County, Texas to enhance the education and care of families in distress that I have come into contact with in my life. I did that as a social worker and now for close to four decades as a lawyer. To that end I am meeting with the Dean of the University of Houston School of Social Work to develop a program wherein graduate students can assist the probate courts in monitoring the effectiveness of the existing guardianships as well as to be resource for such families requesting guardianship.
(3) Preserving the civil rights of our citizens is so very important to me. To that end, I do not agree that basic civil rights are or should be subject to popular vote. When I graduated high school in May, 1967, it was still illegal to have a white-non white marriage in Texas. Unbelievable. Yet the general public in Texas as well as the Texas legislature seemed to favor it. Such laws were always unconstitutional in my mind, and finally the Supreme Court agreed. I have argued throughout my professional career on behalf of the civil rights of our citizens as guaranteed by our United States Constitution. Minorities, women, the LGBT community, and special needs individuals already possess their civil rights. Our society needs to enforce those rights.