THE FORGOTTEN COURT
Abuses by attorneys and private fiduciaries such as Wayne Legg, Webber Mackey and others have led to proposed changes in how the Maricopa County Probate Court operates.
"This hasn't been a matter of a little tweaking here and there to get things up to speed," says the court's presiding judge, Robert Myers. "This is about a policy crossroads, a major reorganization. Sometimes you just say, 'Whew!'"
But trying to get local and state politicians interested in coming to the aid of the "place that no one ever hears about," in the words of a veteran court investigator, has been another story.
The county's Probate Court accounts for 7 percent of the Superior Court's total filings, but receives only 3.5 percent of its budget.
The four Probate Court investigators and their supervisor conduct about 60 investigations and 750 file reviews per month.
The county's Probate Court case load in 1992 included 5,675 filings--3,660 estates and 2,015 guardian-conservatorships.
No one even knows exactly how many cases are currently "open" in the Probate Court. The best guess is about 27,000.
The investigators--The eyes and ears of the court, the cop on the block," supervisor Deborah Primock says--can't access basic information on a computer. They can't punch up and cross-reference which cases an attorney or private fiduciary is working on at a given time.
Almost everything must be done by hand, and there's simply too much to do. The court oversees hundreds of cases involving minors and mentally ill people each year, in addition to unending estate and guardian-conservator matters.
A visit to the court's downtown Phoenix administrative offices reveals files piled head-high around the desks of the swamped investigators. Want to check the court's dockets for the past few years? They're in a box in a closet.
What this means to the vulnerable elderly, Superior Court administrator Gordon Griller wrote in an internal memo last June, is that the court will remain "unable to properly monitor its case load, in violation of its own court rules and national standards.
"Elderly and incapacitated wards and protected persons will lack the degree of court protection mandated to detect and prevent embezzlement, fraud and physical abuse."
Griller's chilling memo was included in a recent packet of proposals that may go to the Arizona State Legislature for consideration. The word "may" is the operative one, however.
What proposals actually make it to the statehouse is dependent on an Arizona Supreme Court-based committee that pares down the wish list. In recent memory, not one proposal that would make life easier at Probate Courts statewide has made it past the steering committee. Things have been about as bleak on the county side, where the Board of Supervisors "generally hasn't really considered this part of the court system a priority," Myers says.
The lack of oversight at the Probate Court, says supervisor Primock, "has allowed some dishonest individuals to see a weak spot and go for it."
Citing pending cases before him involving Wayne Legg and Webber Mackey, presiding Judge Myers won't comment directly about the men. Instead, the judge produces a copy of a speech he gave a few months after his appointment to the Probate Court bench last October.
"I have seen theft and other similar crimes committed against wards by relatives, private fiduciaries, lawyers and strangers," Myers wrote. "I have been and continue to be appalled, saddened and distressed at the cruelty and inhumanity which these people have heaped upon the helpless."
One of Myers' most pressing projects is to interest the state legislature in the licensing of private fiduciaries.
"A lot of these people could not and should not be licensed," Myers says. "We license barbers, pest controllers and private investigators, and we certainly ought to license persons who totally control the lives and estates of strangers."
But even if private fiduciaries are eventually licensed, Myers agrees, the door for abuses will remain open if the Probate Court judges and commissioners--as burdened with cases as many of them are--aren't diligent.
Deborah Primock says she's hopeful that the Legg-Mackey revelations and the determination of Judge Myers to make things work will focus attention on the Probate Court.
"One way or another, a lot more people are going to find themselves here sooner than they think," says Primock, a Probate Court veteran of two decades. "Our time is now.
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