Judging Rory

Jurist Rory Olsen can put you in a mental institution and cost you hefty court fees. Critics wonder whether he can handle the job. Big deal -- he's a bottom-of-the-ballot Republican.

Carolyn Casale Taub stood there in her nice black dress, waiting to get through the five-minute formality that she had been assured would go so easily. Known more often as Mrs. John Ben Taub, wife of the nephew of famed Houston philanthropist Ben Taub, she was in a Harris County probate court on May 17, 2000, a little more than a month after her 84-year-old husband's death from cancer. It was a little less than two months since her own father died.

The nice black dress was the same dress she'd worn to both funerals.

For several years, millionaire John Ben Taub had told her not to worry about anything after he died. "He said, 'Now darling, I know I'm not going anywhere soon, but if and when I do, my will's prepared, so it'll be very easy,' " she remembered.

Judge Rory Olsen says it's part of the territory that people sometimes will disagree with his rulings.
Courtesy of Judge Olsen
Judge Rory Olsen says it's part of the territory that people sometimes will disagree with his rulings.
Olsen tries to create a warm, welcoming feeling in his courtroom using movie stills and posters.
Margaret Downing
Olsen tries to create a warm, welcoming feeling in his courtroom using movie stills and posters.

At her side was Stuart Haynsworth, the longtime family attorney who'd drawn up the will. This all was pro forma stuff. Her husband was dead, the will was in good shape, and he'd left everything to her, so there was no taxable estate; she qualified for the 100 percent marital deduction provision of the Internal Revenue Code. She and her attorney in a routine action asked the court to waive the appointment of any appraiser since none was needed. Everything went as scripted.

That's until Judge Rory R. Olsen of Probate Court No. 3 said no. He was appointing an appraiser to assess the value of the estate's real property and he was doing it today. All Haynsworth could do was sputter a protest. Taub stood there numbly.

From Taub's perspective, things got worse over the next few months. Appointed appraiser Frank Nadolney estimated it would take six months and $78,000 to do the appraisal. When she and her lawyer came up with other appraisers who said they would do the work more quickly and for far less money -- the one she settled on quoted her a price of $9,500 -- the judge said no again. Nadolney would do the work. The judge ordered that she deposit $30,000 directly to Nadolney or to the court registry. She placed it with the court.

She and her attorney repeatedly asked Nadolney not to proceed until the issue of whether the work was needed could be settled in court. Eventually, they sued Frank Nadolney and his firm, Nadolney Enterprises. Taub and her lawyers asked that Olsen recuse himself from the case. Taub also appealed to the office of the state's presiding statutory probate court judge, Guy Herman, to appoint another judge in the case. Herman came from Austin to hear the case himself.

Almost a year and a half after Taub's initial court appearance, Herman ruled that Olsen "committed substantial error in appointing an appraiser to appraise the Estate of John Ben Taub." He vacated the order to appoint Nadolney and ruled there should be no appraiser at all. Nadolney wouldn't get paid anything.

In a letter to the lawyers in the case, Herman said that "a probate court can only appoint an appraiser when an interested person applies for such or when the court 'deems it necessary.' " There was no testimony explaining why Olsen thought an appraiser was necessary, Herman wrote, adding that "absent such evidence, the decision to appoint an appraiser is insupportable."

In addition, he said, appointing an appraiser made no sense. "The will provided for an unlimited marital deduction, which had the effect of causing decedent's estate to owe no taxes." And even if an appraiser had been needed, "it is rather odd to appoint only one appraiser since the estate possessed an interest in real property in several counties," he wrote. Because of residency requirements, an appraiser appointed in one county cannot appraise in another one, he said.

Finally, he noted that any need for an appraiser ended when visiting Judge Jim Scanlan approved the inventory and appraisement back on January 25, 2001.

In August 2001, Olsen recused himself from the case.

In February 2002, Herman ordered Taub's $30,000 deposit returned to her.

But everything isn't settled. Attorney Joe Slovacek sued on Nadolney's behalf, saying that his client was only following the orders of the court and that he deserves to be paid. Nadolney thinks he's been treated unfairly.

Taub thinks she's been treated unfairly as well. "Probate Court No. 3 is a travesty of justice," she says. "It's two and a half years later, and I've got to go to appeals court."

As for Olsen, he's running for re-election after his first four-year term as probate judge. His supporters say he's been maligned. Slovacek says Olsen is a good judge who was personally attacked in this case for no good reason, because a probate judge can legally appoint an appraiser whenever he sees fit.

"Rory Olsen is a punching bag for a lot of people in Harris County," Slovacek says. "He's a Republican grassroots individual who earned his stripes and he got elected and for some reason the other probate judges I've heard bad-mouth him from behind his back.

"Some would have you believe that he's throwing favors to his buddies. Well, that's just not the case," Slovacek says. "Frank's lost money on this case."

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