Calling themselves victims of an activist judge, Galveston County Commissioners voted Monday to continue a five-year legal fight against a county probate court judge.
Commissioners voted 3-2 to appeal an October 2018 ruling ordering the county to pay more than $60,000 to attorneys representing probate court Judge Kimberly Sullivan.
The county was appealing because it had been wronged by the visiting judge’s ruling — and that the ruling set a dangerous precedent, County Judge Mark Henry said.
“Any judge now can set themselves any salary they want because of this ruling,” Henry said.
Visiting Judge Alice Oliver-Parrott ruled the county was wrong to remove a $5,000 budget line item that Sullivan had submitted to commissioners in 2014. The money was supposed to pay Sullivan for her services as the county’s local administrative statutory probate court judge.
Commissioners removed the budget line after questioning whether Sullivan, the county’s only probate court judge, needed to be paid for her work administering the court.
Sullivan sued in October 2014 arguing commissioners didn’t have the power to control the source of the funding. The $5,000 was not budgeted to be paid out of the county’s general fund, but from fees charged within the probate court, Sullivan said.
Oliver-Parrott called the county’s refusal to pay “arbitrary and capricious.”
The county had no choice but to appeal what amounted to the “new state law” Oliver-Parrott had handed down, Henry said.
Commissioners Darrell Apffel and Joe Giusti voted against the appeal.
Apffel objected to Henry’s characterization of the law regarding the issue. As it is written currently, the law allows administrative judges to give themselves a “reasonable” payment.
There’s no definition in the state law that says what reasonable is, Henry said. The county plans to advocate for a bill to be filed in the Texas Legislature to add that definition, he said.
The request for the appeal goes to the Texas Fourteenth Court of Appeals, to which the county had already made some preliminary filings in advance of Monday’s vote. No hearing dates had been set for the appeal as of Monday afternoon, according to court records.
The county could not say on Monday how much it has spent litigating the lawsuit with Sullivan.