Letty Milstein may get her day in court after all--the Colorado Supreme Court.
The mother of flamboyant Denver socialite Judi Wolf, Letty has been caught in the middle of a year-long battle over her freedom since her daughter petitioned the Denver Probate Court to appoint a temporary guardian in April 1996.
The result has been the severe depletion of Letty's estate due to lawyer fees and home-health-care costs; what she calls the 24-hour "invasion of my privacy" by health-care aides; and the loss of contact with friends, neighbors, and her much-loved son, John. Letty blames her daughter, Judi, for her predicament and has accused Judi and her oilman husband, Marvin Wolf, of trying to bankrupt her and force her into a nursing home.
On June 6 of this year, three days after a closed hearing in Denver Probate Court, Judge C. Jean Stewart determined that Letty is incapacitated and ordered that she be watched over by a permanent guardian, who has the authority to govern all of her affairs and activities for the rest of her life. Included in that order was the prohibition that John Milstein, who has argued with the court that the restrictions and expenses imposed on his mother were unnecessary, not be allowed to see her again unless he takes part in "court-approved" counseling.
However, two lawyers, who contend that Letty retained them as counsel several weeks before the June 3 permanent-orders hearing, accuse Stewart of having violated Letty's rights and Colorado law by denying her their services and keeping her from attending her own hearing.
Attorneys Drew Petrie and Cris Campbell filed a petition with the Colorado Supreme Court this week, asking the higher court to knock down Stewart's decisions. And they've asked that Stewart be forced to remove herself from the case.
Petrie and Campbell say it's clear the judge already reached her decision about Letty's mental capacity before the June 3 hearing. The main bone of contention stems from a secret visit Stewart paid to Letty on May 23, in which she determined that the 83-year-old woman's "cognitive abilities are significantly impaired," according to a letter Stewart sent to John Milstein. Such ex parte, or one-sided, contact by a judge outside the courtroom violates the Colorado Code of Judicial Conduct, the lawyers charge.
Nevertheless, Stewart then ordered that Letty could not attend her own hearing, saying it was for her own good. The lawyers say that order, too, violates Colorado statutes that guarantee that a person in a dependency case has the right to attend the hearing, be represented by counsel, cross-examine witnesses and ask for a jury trial.
Letty's former attorney, Bob Horen, who was removed by Stewart, took Campbell to Letty's house the same day the judge visited. The lawyers were there to confirm that Letty wanted Campbell and Petrie to represent her to contest the appointment of a permanent guardian. Horen found her to be "clear, lucid, and able to understand the nature of her legal predicament."
However, shortly before the June 3 hearing, Stewart said Letty "lacked the legal capacity" to hire Campbell and Petrie and reiterated her stance that Letty could not attend the hearing. She also refused to step down from the case as the lawyers demanded. Campbell and Petrie, a reporter and several guardianship watchdogs, were then ordered out of the courtroom.
Stewart, who will not comment on her cases to the press, contends that Liz Paul, whom she appointed as Letty's guardian ad litem when she replaced Horen, represents Letty's interests. However, that contradicts an earlier statement in which she said that Paul was appointed "in lieu of counsel" and was not her attorney. Paul has admitted to John Milstein, in a conversation he taped, that she did not represent his mother.
"I don't represent anyone in particular," she said. "I'm not an advocate of one person the way your mom has had an attorney to be her advocate."
In her permanent orders, Stewart said that Letty's primary wishes were for "peace, privacy and contact with her son." Otherwise, she said, Letty was happy and content with her present situation.
To that Campbell says, "When I talked to her, her chief concern was her freedom. She wants it back."
But Campbell can't talk to his client now. The judge, citing concerns that Letty was being bothered, ordered that her telephone number be changed and her telephone privileges restricted.
Apparently, Letty isn't as content as Stewart claims. Added to the petition to the Colorado Supreme Court is an affidavit from one of Letty's caretakers, Jeane Rhone.
"Mrs. Milstein told me that she wanted to attend her permanent orders hearing on June 3, 1997," Rhone says in the affidavit. "I know that Mrs. Milstein has received and read a copy of the Probate Court's June 6, 1997 order.
"I have had several conversations with Mrs. Milstein about the Probate Court's order. During these conversations, Mrs. Milstein repeatedly has stated that she wants to speak to her attorney, Mr. Campbell.
"I have observed Mrs. Milstein attempt to call Mr. Campbell to discuss her legal options, but she has not been successful in her efforts to contact him. Mrs. Milstein also has asked me why Mr. Campbell has not called her since she received the Probate Court's June 6, 1997 order.
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"I am not an advocate for either Judi Wolf or John Milstein in this case. I simply want what is best for Mrs. Milstein."
Even as Campbell and Petrie were preparing their petition on Monday, Stewart was back visiting Letty, according to several witnesses. To what purpose?
"We can only guess," says Campbell.
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