AUSTIN – Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson must decide whether to recuse a judge who didn't recuse a judge who awarded more than $200 million in a family dispute.
If Jefferson rules that Presiding Probate Judge Guy Herman of Harris County handled a recusal motion properly, the award will stand.
If Jefferson recuses Herman, Probate Judge Mike Wood will have to hold a new trial.
The turmoil would never have arisen if the nine children of the late Miguel Angel Luis Gonzalez y Vallejo had peacefully divided a fortune he built in food and beverages.
Instead, widow Maria del Carmen Guilbot Serros de Gonzalez sued two of her sons, Carlos Gonzalez Guilbot and Miguel Angel Gonzalez Guilbot.
The widow and most of her children claimed Carlos, Miguel and other defendants stole a huge sum from family businesses.
Judge Wood ruled in 2006 that defendants forged stock certificates in order to claim majority interest in some of the businesses.
Wood prohibited them from disputing ownership, and he set trial on damages.
As he prepared for a pretrial hearing, defendants removed the case to federal court.
Wood held the hearing anyway. The widow's lawyer, Hector Longoria, told him the defendants removed the case and he would try to get it remanded.
Wood said he couldn't do anything. He said, "If the order of remand comes, then I would suggest that you bring a certified copy of it and give it to the clerk of this court."
A federal judge remanded the case 17 days later, ordering defendants to pay $7,500 in attorney fees because they had no reason to believe removal was proper.
The clerk gave Longoria certified copies of the docket sheet and the remand order.
Longoria headed for the Harris County courthouse with his copies the next morning, but defendants got there first and filed a motion to recuse Wood.
Wood forwarded the motion to Judge Herman, who appointed Judge Gladys Burwell to hear it.
Defendants then filed separate motions to recuse both Burwell and Herman.
Herman held a hearing on all three motions, but the defendants didn't show up. Herman denied the motions and fined the defendants $12,000 for "frivolous pleading."
The defendants didn't show up for trial, and Wood awarded the plaintiffs about $205 million.
On appeal, defendants argued that jurisdiction never returned to Harris County and that the recusal motions were still pending because Herman handled them improperly.
Appeals judges rejected the first argument but accepted the second, ruling that a law against triple recusal applied only if all three motions involved the same judge.
Plaintiffs appealed to the Supreme Court of Texas, where defendants asserted that hand delivery of the federal court order circumvented a requirement for mailing.
Defendants declared the whole case moot, pleading that jurisdiction hadn't vested in federal court or Harris County.
They didn't persuade any of the Justices.
"We reject defendants' argument that both federal and state courts have been divested of jurisdiction and the case now exists in a strange procedural twilight zone," Justice Don Willett wrote.
He wrote that "hand delivery of the remand order in this case successfully effected the transfer of jurisdiction from federal to state court."
Longoria furthered a policy of avoiding excessive delay in resolving disputes, he wrote.
The Justices found that the appeals court wrongly applied the law on triple recusal.
"Defendants' interpretation would produce absurd results, with litigants able to delay resolution of their cases by clogging courts with a seemingly limitless number of recusal motions," Willett wrote.
That didn't settle the matter, however, for the Justices held that Herman should not have ruled on the recusal motion against him.
"Judge Herman eventually referred that motion to Chief Justice Jefferson, and we find no prejudice stemming from Judge Herman's belated referral," Willett wrote.
"If the motion is denied, the court of appeals shall affirm the trial court's judgment," he wrote.
"If the motion is granted, the court of appeals shall reverse the trial court's judgment and remand to that court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion," he wrote.
Longoria, Daryl Moore, Thomas Phillips and Martha Newton represented plaintiffs.
Andres Perez-Chaumont, Armanda Lopez, Andy Taylor and Eric Nielsen represented defendants.