On January 25, Houston attorney Denyse Ward received an alarming call from Tim Baldwin, an investigator with the Texas State Bar: Baldwin said his office had received a complaint about her from Harris County Probate Court Judge Rory Olsen, regarding her involvement in a case before him — an ugly battle among a fallen police officer's heirs.
Baldwin told Ward, according to his testimony Tuesday in a hearing over Ward's motion to recuse Olsen, that the judge's two-page letter relayed a "general concern" about Ward's "interaction with his staff" on December 7.
Here's what happened: A hearing in the matter of police officer Richard Martin's estate was set for that afternoon, but Olsen never showed.
This puzzled Ward, as well as Houston Police Officers' Union President Ray Hunt, who was waiting outside the locked courtroom with Ward. Hunt had even invited KPRC reporter Phil Archer, who planned on covering the hearing. After a while of waiting, they went into Olsen's office, and Ward asked one of the staff what was going on. She was told the meeting was canceled and the judge had gone home.
Right before a hearing on January 7, according to Ward's motion, Olsen asked all the attorneys into the jury deliberation room, where he told them he'd been "contacted regarding this case." Olsen invited anyone who questioned his objectivity to file a recusal motion, according to the affidavit. No one did.
That all changed after Baldwin's phone call, which caught Ward by surprise. But, as Baldwin would later testify, Olsen's complaint was unsubstantiated. Although Ward asked for a copy of the letter, Baldwin said the rules of confidentiality prevented it. But, he would later testify, he told her that Olsen's concerns were unsubstantiated, and no action would be taken. Baldwin also testified that he ran the letter through the shredder after speaking with Ward and didn't have a copy.
Presumably, the only person who has a copy of the letter is Olsen, but he wouldn't talk to the Houston Press, citing "ethics." So all anyone knows about Olsen's complaint is what Baldwin remembers.
One might think that ethics might call for a judge to voluntarily remove himself from a case involving an attorney he bitched to the bar about — especially if the accused doesn't know the full extent of the allegations — but Olsen apparently knows better, which is why a bunch of lawyers and a visiting judge had to waste their time hearing testimony and arguments Tuesday.
We say "waste their time" because much of the 90-minute hearing before Judge Gladys Burwell was gobbled up by trying to classify exactly how the bar classified Olsen's letter. Although we called it a "complaint" at the top of the story, it should be noted that we mean "complaint" in the way that normal people use the word.
But the Texas State Bar's Office of Disciplinary Counsel is not a normal entity; its people have a unique taxonomy that ranks correspondence as "complaints," "grievances" or "inquiries." There's a separate process for each. Apparently the process for Olsen's letter was "shred this meritless B.S." Baldwin said that he never even contacted Olsen after receiving the letter.
Baldwin testified that the letter was neither a complaint nor a grievance, which is why Ward wasn't provided a copy.
"I tried to put her mind at ease...that there was no further action being taken," he testified.
But while the letter clearly meant nothing to Baldwin, Ward testified that it was a real bummer.
"My heart sank," she said. "I couldn't imagine what I'd done."
Ward believes that Olsen was under the impression that Ward invited KPRC's Archer to cover the meeting. (Baldwin testified that Olsen's letter implied that the media was "camped out" in his office.)
However, HPOU's Hunt testified — and swore in an affidavit — that he invited Archer without Ward's knowledge.
When Hunt took the stand, he testified, "I think Phil Archer would find that laughable — that the media was camped out in any way." [It must be mentioned for the record that when Ward's attorney played a clip of Archer's December 7 broadcast, Hunt was misidentified as "Ray Hung," which might be the greatest nom de porn this side of "Dirk Diggler."]
Arguing the obvious, Ward's attorney, Karen Alvarado, said, "We're not here to impugn [Olsen's] character in any way," but there's "a reasonable doubt as to his impartiality" regarding Ward. (She cited the "reasonable person" standard in the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, which state that judges must recuse themselves if their "impartiality might reasonably be questioned.")
Alvarado argued that Olsen could have aired his concerns without taking the drastic action of going straight to the Bar — like, for example, addressing her in open court. (However, the Press understands that some people — many of whom are seventh-grade girls — prefer talking behind someone's back.)
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"Not all judges like me, believe it or not," Alvarado argued, "...[but] the extra step of going to the State Bar is a big step."
Both Alvarado and Ward said that Ward's client — the fallen officer's ex-wife — was very concerned about Olsen's impartiality. We can't blame her.
The hitch is, that case isn't the only one of Ward's before Olsen. Ward has asked for Olsen to only be removed from the two cases before him that are contested by heirs. The attorneys in that other case argued against recusal Tuesday, which is understandable, since it's a distinct advantage when it seems like the judge in your case has a grudge against opposing counsel.
Burwell said she would look over both parties' filings before making a ruling. We'll keep you posted.