Letty Wins

The Court of Appeals reverses a probate judge's controversial handling of the Letty Milstein case.

It is not clear whether Stewart, who stepped down from the case after it was accepted by the Court of Appeals last fall, will now be in charge of rectifying her own mistakes or if the case will be passed on to Judge Field Benton, a former Denver probate judge who came out of retirement to take it on when Stewart bowed out.

Letty's supporters are clearly in favor of Benton, who last fall cut payments requested by the various parties, though by then most of Letty's $650,000 estate was already gone ("Changing of the Guard," December 18, 1997). Benton also accepted the resignations of Ayers and Paul and appointed two family friends as Letty's co-guardians--an action Horen had requested in July 1996--and withdrew the restraining order against her son, John.

Late last week, John Milstein described his mother as happy about the decision. He said it has not been decided whether the family will pursue lawsuits against the parties involved in addition to seeking the return of the money paid to them from the estate.

Campbell met with Letty this past Friday for the first time since last May. At that meeting, he says, she authorized him to seek "every penny" taken from her estate. And Campbell says he will continue to do it for free. "I'll kick it all back into her estate," he says. "This is fun...I just remember Liz Paul's motion about what a sacrifice she made working for Letty--$42,000 for five months' work. She'll see what sacrifice means when we come after her.

"This is a complete victory for Letty," Campbell adds. "The message is clear: Judge Stewart did everything wrong she could do."

Although the probate court could decide to let the payments made to its appointees stand, Petrie said it's clear that the appellate court "was critical of the amount of money paid out...You can almost see their eyebrows raised, particularly [about] the money pissed away that had nothing to do with benefiting Letty."

The Court of Appeals decision could affect Stewart's future as Denver's probate judge. During proceedings in the Milstein case, it came out that in addition to her decisions to ignore Colorado law, Stewart had apparent conflicts of interest in that as a former probate lawyer, she once represented Gordon Wolfe, who received more than $40,000 from Letty's estate for a few months' work as her temporary guardian. Wolfe may now have to pay that money back.

Campbell, Petrie and Sargent all note that the publicity following this case could follow Stewart when she comes up for re-election. None will say whether a grievance has been filed against her with the judicial review commission; such matters are confidential.

One source close to the court system notes that it is part of a judge's ethical requirements to safeguard the rights of people in his or her courtroom. Letty's rights, according to the Court of Appeals, were violated repeatedly. Stewart, responding to a telephone call from Westword, says she won't comment "on an ongoing case."

Sargent says it was important that the Court of Appeals decision was "published," which happens only about 25 percent of the time. "It means the decision has precedential value," he says, "and can be cited by future litigants. The message to the judge was: 'You screwed up in pretty significant ways.'"

The decision, he says, was also important in that it tells people whose estates were plundered under similar circumstances that all is not lost. The court's finding that the fees paid in Letty's case should be re-examined leaves the door open to recouping fees in other cases.

"Unfortunately," Sargent says, "I don't think this case was all that unique--except, perhaps, the cast of characters was a little more colorful."

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