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.

He said Scanlan warned him that UT might try something else after he was gone. According to Olsen, they did and he discovered it. "I found that if they found someone who met the protocols for being a research subject, they would send us paperwork to dismiss him but they wouldn't let him out the door." State Representative Kyle Janek, a physician, carried the bill, which passed unanimously in the House and sets new restrictions on people entering such programs.

As for his once-a-week mental health hearings, Olsen said he took his cue from Judge McCullough, who did them that way. It's more efficient, he said.

Opponent Downes sees the mental health duties in a slightly different way. "This court requires a judge who is not only familiar with the law but is willing to work with people with disabilities, with families with disabilities. This is not like many other areas of law. It's not as orderly as you would like to think a courtroom is."

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.

As an assistant county attorney, Downes represents the state in commitment proceedings. "I think the mental health code is quite clear that the whole commitment process is to facilitate the provision of mental health services for those people who need it. I do believe that we need to carefully examine each case. But most of the time the process works pretty well."

As for whom to listen to in court, Downes said, "Certainly the patient has a right not to testify if they don't want to. But if they're willing to talk, I think that's a good indication of a patient's status."

Prior to its endorsement, the Chronicle had written about Olsen. Columnist Thom Marshall in spring 2001 wrote about Olsen's actions in the Taub case (though he did not identify Taub by name) and in some other cases, saying that probate court had become a dangerous place to be for people with money.

One of the cases Marshall wrote about was that of Ruth Bauer, an extremely wealthy Houston woman who fought for months in 2001 against Olsen appointing a guardian to control her life.

Ruth Bauer's son Douglas had gone to court asking for a temporary guardian for his mother, who he contended had a serious drinking problem, claiming that she was incapacitated. Her attorney at the time, Robert Piro, alleged that her son and husband had cooked up this scheme to have her declared incapacitated as a means of controlling about $450 million she would receive once her divorce was final.

Olsen appointed attorney Darlene Payne-Smith to be Bauer's guardian ad litem, attorney Judy Lenox to be Bauer's temporary guardian and attorney Jim Wyckoff to be Bauer's attorney ad litem. Lenox would make medical and financial decisions for the 54-year-old Bauer, while Payne-Smith would look after her overall interests and Wyckoff had the responsibility of being her advocate in court-- although Bauer already had hired other attorneys, Ray Riley and Joe Horrigan, to represent her.

Horrigan and Riley fought the actions as totally unnecessary. They argued that Bauer's alleged alcohol problem shouldn't rob her of her civil rights through a temporary guardianship.

Olsen also appointed Priscilla Ray, a psychiatrist, to interview and testify about Bauer. In 2001 alone, the Ruth Bauer Management Trust paid $185,336 to Payne-Smith's firm of Crain, Caton & James, $22,725 to Ray and $79,428 to Wyckoff -- a total of $287,489.

Bauer's attorneys filed a motion to recuse Olsen, saying there had been an ex parte communication between the judge and/or members of his staff and attorney Payne-Smith; that is, Olsen or his office talked with one side of the matter about the case without the other side being present. The recusal motion also alleged that Olsen was biased in the case and was making rulings without listening to evidence.

Eventually the family joined in to ask that the guardianship be dropped. Ultimately, the case was removed from Olsen's court when Judge Herman ruled that it had not been assigned correctly and it needed to be reassigned randomly. It went to Judge Mike Wood, who dismissed the guardianship motion.

Olsen declined to discuss the Bauer case specifically, saying if a guardianship action was ever reinitiated it would come back to his court. He did say that ending a temporary guardianship isn't just a case of everyone agreeing that it should be over. It involves one person saying he'll do one thing in relation to the case and another person saying he'll do something else. So it takes time to work out.

Riley filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court, challenging the state statute allowing the appointment of a temporary guardian without notice. Olsen in turn filed a motion to dismiss the federal case, saying that a civil rights suit against a state judge was inappropriate. That case was dismissed and is now on appeal.

Bauer and her 82-year-old husband decided not to divorce, although they live separately.

The irony is hard to escape. Olsen's mental health critics complain he doesn't do enough commitments, doesn't get their troubled relatives the services they need. On the estate and guardianship side of probate court, critics say Olsen is all too ready to take away someone's civil liberties with a guardian ad litem and that he runs up court costs unnecessarily in cases involving wealthy people.

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