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Chief justice cheers turnout at Longview off-site session

By Glenn Evans
Feb. 16, 2017 at 9:12 p.m.
Updated Feb. 16, 2017 at 9:30 p.m.

Texas Supreme Court justices make their entrance Thursday, February 16, 2017, during the court's visit to LeTourneau University. (Les Hassell/News-Journal Photo)

Fifth-grader Sophia Yastrebov craned her neck Thursday to reach the microphone and ask Texas Supreme Court justices a question they probably ask themselves from time to time.

“Do you ever have trouble separating your personal preferences from a person’s legal rights?” the Longview home-school student asked during a question-and-answer session after the court’s Longview session in the Belcher Center at LeTourneau University.

Eleven-year court veteran Justice Phil Johnson fielded that one.

“The answer to that is, ‘sometimes,’” he told Sophia and the audience of more than 1,000 high school and college students, hundreds of lawyers, scores of judges and others from across the region who came to see the state’s highest civil court hear two cases.

RELATED: Supreme Court visit sparks students' interest in law

In all, some 1,400 people saw a scene Thursday they would have had to travel to Austin to see before 1997, when voters changed the Texas Constitution to allow off-site sessions.

In answering Sophia’s on-point question, Johnson confessed he might enter a case thinking one way.

“But you research the law,” he said. “You just come out differently than you would prefer to come out. The answer is, we have a system of laws that has to be predictable. And people have to depend on them.”

Transparency

That was just one lesson — but a major one — that the nine justices said they wanted to leave behind. The judges acknowledged their job is an obscure one to most Texans, hopefully less so after each of their roughly twice-yearly out-of-town sessions.

“They’ve been in mystery for too long,” retired Longview plumber Peter Saccoccio said after watching the two cases be heard — either of which could set legal precedent.

Making all Texas courts transparent is not merely a campaign promise for the justices, all of whom are Republicans.

“We’ve gone to high schools and universities across the state,” Chief Justice Nathan Hecht told a lunch audience after the morning session. “But the best I can remember is, this is the best off-site meeting we have held.”

Hecht credited Longview’s John and Susan Coppedge, whom he met in 1987, the year he campaigned for his first election to the Texas Supreme Court, for sharing his love of making Texans more aware of their judiciary.

Coppedge is recognized statewide as an expert on the Texas judiciary, often shepherding hopefuls for the Supreme Court, Court of Criminal Appeals and local appellate venues through their political campaigns.

Thursday’s events, which included all nine justices teaching afternoon continuing education classes for lawyers in the Gregg County Courthouse, climaxed a two-year effort by the retired surgeon.

Hecht and the court are mandating that all Texas courts go online, with electronic filing implemented in stages. Civil courts are wrapping up that change now, and criminal courts are to be added beginning July 1.

“By 2019, all of the court records in all of the trial courts other than justices of the peace and municipal courts will be electronic,” Hecht said, adding the next step after that will be opening that portal to all residents.

“We need to open up the court records, so people can see the cases that are being filed,” he said.

The cases

The court will issue rulings from the morning sessions by the end of its term this summer. At roughly one hour apiece, the hearings brought a reunion of sorts for the justices.

Former Supreme Court Justice Craig Enoch and former Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson were squaring off in an inheritance dispute that had wended its way up through the trial and appellate courts in Fort Worth, Waco and Austin.

“And now we’re in Longview,” Enoch noted as he began his 20-minute allotment to speak.

Enoch represents a family claiming the woman who was married to their grandfather had been unduly influenced to alter her will by a niece and nephew to whom she is related by blood. The Kinsel family is claiming their stepgrandmother, Lesey Kinsel, was unduly influenced by her nephew and niece, Bob Oliver and Jane Lindsey, while living with dementia.

Justice Eva Guzman stopped Enoch at one point, asking whether someone who has lost competence can regain it.

Enoch replied that medical testimony in the trial record says incompetence is incurable despite “good days and bad days.”

Enoch said the stepgrandmother had amended her will three times through the years.

“All of a sudden, she makes a significant change to the trust,” he said, adding the woman dropped the Kinsels from her will and sold her ownership in their grandfather’s ranch under direction of the niece and nephew and a law firm that also is being sued by the Kinsels. “Once you have undue influence, then any change is improper.”

Jefferson represents that law firm, Jackson Walker.

He said the niece and nephew brought their aunt, the Kinsels’ stepgrandmother, to his client’s office in 2007.

“The first thing he did was separate Lesey from Jane and Bob,” Jefferson said. “And he brought in a second lawyer, as witness, while he asked questions to see if she was competent.”

The Kinsels won a $3 million jury verdict at the trial court level, but it was reversed on appeal because that court ruled a claim of interference with inheritance rights doesn’t exist.

A ruling for the Kinsel family would establish such a right.

The second case involves a doctor who asked to be dismissed from a wrongful death suit under a claim of governmental immunity.

Dr. Leah Anne Gonski Marino was in a residency program in 2015 at a University of Texas Physicians Clinic in Houston, but she was paid by the nonprofit UT Health Systems Foundation.

Her claim of governmental immunity led to her dismissal by the trial court, but an appeals court rejected that dismissal on grounds the nonprofit foundation is not a governmental entity and doesn’t “control” the doctor’s work.

The lawsuit arose from a hormone injection Marino gave the plaintiff’s pregnant daughter, when the daughter’s regular physician was not available.

The pregnant woman later developed breathing problems and died, along with her unborn twins, en route to a hospital.

“Liability typically follows control,” attorney Joseph Gourrier argued for the mother and grandmother suing the doctor.

The justices peppered Gourrier, and defense counsel John Strawn Jr., with questions trying to pin down whether the UT medical foundation is a governmental entity. Court members drew multiple citations by the attorneys of the bylaws, policies and other documents governing the assignment of residencies to young doctors under the arrangement of the two UT entities.

The case has implications statewide, including in Longview where Christus Good Shepherd Medical Center offers a medical residency program for doctors in partnership with UT Health Northeast near Tyler.

Previous coverage:

Justices eager to meet students, public Thursday

Texas Supreme Court will gavel-in at Longview's Belcher Center Thursday

Texas Supreme Court to hear weighty issues in Longview

Security tight for visit by state's highest court

Texas Supreme Court needed voters' permission to travel

Texas Supreme Court Longview stop expected to draw thousands

Texas Supreme Court justice profiles:

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