A Galveston County probate judge this summer took an Alaskan cruise at public expense that offered continuing legal education courses.
Now some elected leaders are questioning the ethics of judges traveling to exotic locales for continuing education.
Galveston County Probate Judge Kimberly Sullivan attended a seven-day Alaskan cruise in August hosted by the TexasBarCLE that included 12 hours of ethics-related course work, according to an invoice obtained by The Daily News from the county.
The trip resulted in a $1,613.15 charge to the Probate Court Contributions fund — a public account provided to the court by the state and derived from county probate court filing fees, according to the county auditor’s office.
The fund can be used for court-related purposes as determined by the judge, as long as the expenses do not supplement the judge’s income, the auditor said.
Her husband attended as well, but his portion of the trip was paid for privately. Sullivan covered the air travel to Seattle, where the ship departed, with her personal money, she said.
Sullivan defended her use of the fund for reimbursement for the courses and ship accommodation as continuing education that improved the administration of the county’s probate court.
“The dedicated fund, in part, is to improve court administration, including continuing legal education,” Sullivan said in a written statement.
“I believe that such courses and reimbursement for them is a responsible use of the fund. The dedicated fund from which reimbursement was sought is not part of Galveston County funds created from taxpayer dollars, nor is it created by state funds, but rather from probate court filings.”
The county auditor’s office first raised the question about the expense to commissioners, but ultimately judged it was an allowable expense for the fund, County Judge Mark Henry said.
“If the auditor says it’s allowable, it is. But that doesn’t make it ethical,” Henry said.
“I don’t think it’s illegal, to be clear. I guess she can spend her travel money how she sees fit, but I think it looks bad, especially when there are continuing education classes she can get right here.”
The TexasBarCLE, a continuing legal education organization for Texas attorneys, hosted the seven-day Alaskan cruise Aug. 20-27, according to its website.
The cruise — titled Smooth Sailing for the Modern Office: The Ethics Cruise — offered 12 hours of classes taught by Claude Ducloux, an Austin attorney in private practice, according to the Texas Bar website.
The courses offered included: Running the Ethical Office in the 21st Century; Cyber-Security in the Law Office — a Checklist; Paying and Receiving Referral Fees; Closing a Law Practice; Conflicts of Interest; Litigation Ethics: Survey of Judges; Handling Difficult Witnesses; The Psychology of Settlement; The Law of Privacy — Statutes and Forms; Managing Client Expectations; Shakespeare in Law; and Ethics Jeopardy, according to the website.
The trip also included ports of call stops where passengers could take excursions in Juneau, Alaska; Hubbard Glacier, Alaska; Sitka, Alaska; Ketchikan, Alaska; and Victoria, Canada, according to the website. The cruise fees also included meals, according to the website.
Sullivan was first elected Galveston County Probate Judge in 2010, according to her campaign website. Probate court is a specialized court dealing with the administration of estates — the property and debts of a person after they die.
In April, Sullivan initially requested reimbursement from a county taxpayer-funded account that requires approval from the Galveston County Commissioners Court, according to an email sent by County Auditor Randall Rice.
“When I pointed out to Judge Sullivan the expense would have to be approved by the court or it would have to be repaid, she noted it was inadvertently coded to that fund and should have been coded to Fund 2216 — Probate Court Contributions,” Rice wrote in an email to Henry’s staff.
“This fund does not require Commissioners Court approval and the expenditure of funds is controlled by the Probate Judge.”
Sullivan then asked the auditor’s office to “correct the coding to reflect payment of the travel expense,” Rice said in the email. The auditor’s office changed it and recorded it on the date of the expense, which was June 9, according to the email. Sullivan was reimbursed for the trip before she took it.
The expense was recorded as “mileage,” according to the invoice.
Judges are required to take 16 hours each year of judicial education after their first year on the bench, according to the Texas Center for the Judiciary. The first year on the bench requires 30 hours of judicial education, according to the center.
Texas judges who attend and complete judicial education conferences hosted by the center have those expenses reimbursed by state funding, according to the center. Those conferences are all hosted in Texas, according to the center.
The State Bar of Texas and other associations host additional continuing education courses and conferences in Houston and elsewhere around the state frequently, according to the center.
Asked if the courses offered on the cruise or similar courses were also offered in the Houston-area, in Texas or in the continental United States, Sullivan did not answer directly.
Sullivan said: “The continuing legal education course was offered as part of a cruise. Ship accommodations were a part of the cost. I have not sought reimbursement for travel to or from the destination.
“If the destination had been in some city in Texas, I would have been entitled to reimbursement for travel to and from as well as hotel accommodations.”