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.

The criteria for commitment are that a person is mentally ill and that he is a threat to himself or others or is in a deteriorating condition and because of that can't function in society and will get worse without treatment, Olsen said. Just because a person is mentally ill doesn't mean he should be committed. There has to be some kind of overt act or continuing pattern of action, Olsen said.

"When any judge has a mental health case, we operate in a fairly narrowly confined area. Judges don't have the arbitrary powers to do what is best. We have to follow the law. Sometimes that prevents us from doing what we want to do," Olsen said.

"This part of the job is almost mechanical," he emphasized. "If the state doesn't meet the elements, the person isn't committed."

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.

Evelyn Johnson, a member of the Harris County Mental Health Needs Council and other local mental health organizations, said families' knowledge should be considered in commitment proceedings. "For instance, when son Johnny starts talking about blue light bulbs, the family knows he's at a crisis stage. It's like if my husband's had a heart attack and then later he starts experiencing the same type of things that led to the last attack, like tightness in his chest, I'm going to get help for him."

Betty Cobb, well known in mental health circles as one of the founding members of the westside chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, and a registered Republican, also wrote the Chronicle following its endorsement, saying Olsen "has been a big disappointment" to her.

"I get calls from families all the time, and I get a lot of complaints about Judge Olsen -- that he doesn't want to listen to the family," said Cobb. She hosted a candidate's breakfast at her house for Downes.

Also, while predecessor Jim Scanlan went to the Harris County Psychiatric Center (HCPC) twice a week, Olsen goes only on Fridays. "That means that patients have to wait," Cobb said. "The family has to try to deal with them at home until the judge comes in once a week. That's a long time. It seems like there's a lot more people with problems now than when Judge Scanlan was around, and we're getting less from Judge Olsen.

"I don't think he considers the mental health part of the job that significant, and I think he's bored with it," Cobb said.

Carolyn Hamilton, who has been involved in NAMI and whose husband, Tom Hamilton, is on the board of the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County, says she doesn't think Olsen is sensitive to people with mental illness. "I have nothing personal against him. He has just seemed so bored in listening to what they have to say." He hasn't worked well with psychiatrists or patients' families, she said.

Saying she also supports Jim Downes's candidacy, Hamilton said Olsen has had plenty of time to become better at the mental health portion of his job and she just doesn't see that happening.

Tom Mitchell, head of the ACT (Assertive Community Treatment) team for MHMRA, which works with the mentally ill at their homes, jobs and in the streets, said his staff used to be called to mental health hearings, "but we don't get called anymore."

Dr. George Santos, psychiatrist and head of Texas West Oaks Hospital, said members of the Houston Psychiatric Society have been unsuccessful in their attempts to meet with Olsen to discuss their concerns.

Olsen, he said, has an overly officious and difficult manner in the courtroom. Santos himself had two patients sent to him that were released by Olsen before Santos thought they were ready. Two to three weeks later, one of them was arrested after she was caught carrying a knife into a church, Santos said.

One of Santos's major problems with Olsen is that he's told families they could not present testimony that he felt was hearsay. Olsen agreed. He said hearsay is not allowed in testimony, that a witness must see something firsthand to testify to it. But Santos said that given the special nature of the mental health courts, family testimony is crucial.

Santos said psychiatrists in private practice resist taking commitment patients since they will have to go to Olsen's court. Under Judge Scanlan, Santos said, these hearings would be done two or three times a week and private psychiatrists who needed to get back to their hospitals would go first. Now, at one time a week with no accommodations for the private psychiatrists, he said most don't want to go.

For his part, Olsen readily acknowledged he's "not popular in some parts of the psychiatric community" but said that's because of some of the legislation he's helped draw up in Austin. When Scanlan was over Probate Court No. 3, he discovered that some HCPC patients were being used in research projects, Olsen said. After two years of wrangling, Olsen said, UT Medical School, which oversees HCPC, accepted a consent decree that stopped putting patients into placebo experiments as part of their treatment, Olsen said.

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