Hours before releasing a combative order that approved the draining of an 88-year-old widow's life savings, a Maricopa County probate judge sent a draft copy of her ruling to the attorneys who stood to benefit – a violation of the judges' ethics code.
One of those attorneys responded to the March e-mail and even suggested several changes that were incorporated into Pro-Tem Judge Lindsay Ellis' 21-page ruling.
“I could not be happier,” attorney Brenda Church replied, upon getting the proposed order.
I guess not. Church's bill for $333,000 was among nearly $800,000 worth about to be approved by Ellis.
Three other attorneys – Lauren Garner and Jerome Elwell who were working for the Sun Valley Group, and Brian Theut, the old lady's guardian ad litem – also received Ellis' draft ruling. None of them reported Ellis to the Commission on Judicial Conduct or notified the attorneys representing Marie Long and her sisters of the improper “ex-parte” communication. Such contacts are a violation of the Arizona Code of Judicial Conduct.
Presiding Probate Judge Karen O'Connor, who last year twice rejected requests to disqualify Ellis from the case due to bias, has ordered a hearing into the matter, which came to light late last week.
Ellis and the lawyers in on the tête-à-tête couldn't be reached for comment Monday. The attorneys excluded from Ellis' sneak peek -- the ones advocating for the old lady -- were stunned that Ellis would be so blatant in her favoritism.
“The whole justice system is based on making sure there is no appearance of impropriety and it's a fair tribunal and a fair system,” said attorney Pat Gitre, who represents Marie's sisters. “Marie Long never had a fair tribunal and Marie Long never had a chance.”
What Marie Long did have, once upon a time before she entered probate court, was $1.3 million in assets. After a stroke in 2005, she fell under the protective eye of probate, a place where a cozy group of fiduciaries and attorneys are appointed to help vulnerable people but also manage to help themselves to a sizable pile of cash unless a judge stops it.
In Marie's case, no judge stopped it. Over the next four years, Sun Valley, which served as Marie's guardian, and the various probate attorneys collected $900,000 in guardian, care and legal fees until last year, when Marie was tapped out.
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Probate Judge Violates Ethics Code
Guardian Balked at Aiding Marie Long