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.

Actually, Olsen's detractors, for the most part, describe him as a likable fellow, a "nice man." But his critics, who come from not only the legal system but the mental health community as well (his court is designated the primary one to hear commitment proceedings), claim that whatever his education résumé -- and it is an impressive one -- Olsen doesn't know the law. At least not the law he rules on.

In fact, critics often refer to him as "stupid," "dumb" or "that idiot." Or as one noted attorney put it: "He's dumber than a bucket of hair."

This in itself would be damning enough, but when those harsh assessments are coupled with statistics from Olsen's court, it may explain why Republicans are saying they support the Democrat in this race.

Jim Downes has a strong mental health background.
Courtesy of Jim Downes
Jim Downes has a strong mental health background.
Dr. George Santos says Olsen is overly officious in court.
Dr. George Santos says Olsen is overly officious in court.

A review of county records shows that in 1999, there were 25 Texas courts having probate jurisdiction (in smaller jurisdictions, county courts handle probate). A total of 108 cases were transferred to visiting judges. Of these 108, Olsen transferred 25 cases from his court -- 23 percent of all the cases transferred in the state.

In 2000, there were 29 courts with probate jurisdiction. That year Olsen made 30 of the total 108 transfers, for close to 28 percent of the total number. And in 2001, there were 97 transfers out of 37 courts, and Olsen was responsible for 30 of them -- just shy of 31 percent.

In all that time, only one case was transferred to Olsen's court by another judge, according to county records.

Not infrequently, some attorneys say, Olsen starts on a case, messes it up and then recuses himself, leaving it to another judge to clean up after him. Olsen says there are good reasons for his recusals; he knows a lawyer involved or the attorneys would like to combine a case before him with one they have in another court.

That still doesn't explain why no one is combining cases into his court. Or why some attorneys say they give each other high fives in the probate clerk's office when the random selection process assigns one of their cases to any of the other three probate judges.

And even though he's stepping out of these cases, Olsen still collects his annual salary, now set at $121,296 -- while visiting judges have collected a total of $69,577 since January 1, 1999, in extra taxpayer expense to take on Rory Olsen's work.

Rory Olsen got his bachelor's degree in political science from Loyola University, his law degree from Duke, an MBA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an LLM from Southern Methodist University.

In his first two years out of school, Olsen worked with a number of law firms, then settled into private practice on his own. He focused on estate planning and probate guardianship, and in the late 1980s he began picking up court appointments in mental health cases from his predecessor, Judge Jim Scanlan. He also invested his spare time working pretty heavily for the Republican Party.

A portly man with a mustache who walks with a short stride, Olsen can be charming and likable. He's proud of the improvements he's made to his courtroom: a good loudspeaker system for the hard of hearing, padding on the benches to make the wait more comfortable, and movie posters lining the walls inside the courtroom (paid for out of his own pocket) because he wanted people to feel better when they came to his court and he figured everyone likes the movies. All the posters have court or criminal justice themes. Over the jury box are displayed framed movie stills from Twelve Angry Men starring Henry Fonda.

Olsen was elected to the bench in 1998 after Scanlan, the self-described "last Democrat in the Family Law Building," decided it was time to go before the Republican sweep got him, too. Olsen said it was watching Scanlan years ago that made him decide he wanted to be a probate judge.

As such, Olsen is responsible for matters concerning estates, wills and heirships (when no one left a will). He is the chief administrative judge for the mental health docket, although fellow Probate Judge William McCullough also hears mental health cases. There are some trials, but most matters are handled by the judge.

Critics contend Olsen is rarely in court, and in fact during a recent week it was difficult to find him on the bench. He said that's just the normal ebb and flow of the court's business. And while Scanlan tells of the days in which he conducted three jury trials in one day over at Jeff Davis Hospital, critics claim Olsen avoids contested cases and jury trials and passes off anything that looks controversial to other sitting judges or to retired jurists filling in for him.

According to the county auditor's office, from January 1, 1999, to the present, Scanlan received $44,873 sitting in for Olsen, Judge John Hutchinson $14,154, and Judge Jerome Jones $10,550, for a total of $69,577.

Olsen said he takes time off only when he's sick or on vacation.

He is opposed by Jim Downes, an assistant attorney for Harris County, who has more than 20 years of experience practicing in mental health law.

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