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Chief judge keeps public waiting on details of guardianship shakeup

Palm Beach County’s chief judge would not say Wednesday whether he would allow longtime probate Judge Martin Colin to continue hearing cases in the division where his wife makes her living as a professional guardian.

Jeffrey Colbath Tuesday released a list of changes in response to a Palm Beach Post investigation about Colin and his wife, Elizabeth Savitt. But none of his five changes says anything about the fate of Colin and his close friend and probate colleague, Circuit Judge David French, who hears most of Savitt’s cases and approves her fees. Colbath would take no media questions Wednesday.

The Post’s series, Guardianship: A Broken Trust, exposed practices by Savitt, including taking fees without prior court approval, double billing and funneling the life savings of incapacitated seniors to relatives accused of taking advantage of them. Her lawyers practiced in front of Colin, a longtime jurist in the Probate & Guardianship Division.

Among the most significant changes is the chief judge’s plan to rotate “personnel” effective Feb. 15 and the recusal of current south county judges from Savitt’s cases. This presumably will include French, a friend of Colin’s and Savitt’s who once planned a Caribbean cruise vacation with the pair.

Colbath also said he will establish a wheel to provide random assignment of professional guardians to cases, provide in-house training for probate judges and court staff and standardize billing practices for guardians and attorneys.

Colbath’s office said on Wednesday that the judge’s rotation will be announced on Feb. 12 but that other details of the overhaul were still being worked out. Circuit spokeswoman Debra Oats said, “It is too early to describe the details related to the implementation.”

Colbath has not spoken to The Post directly about Colin, Savitt or his reforms, instead speaking through Oats or his general counsel.

The Post’s stories revealed how Savitt’s work as a professional guardian created an appearance of impropriety for Judge Colin, according to a former chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court.

Colin didn’t hear his wife’s cases, but her attorneys appeared in front of him for years, relying on him for approval of sometimes lucrative fees. Families told The Post that other judges — Colin’s colleagues — ignored their complaints and concerns about Savitt.

Colin recused himself of 115 cases involving Savitt’s attorneys in the past six months of 2015 after The Post started investigating. In The Post’s series, former Supreme Court Justice Gerald Kogan questioned how Colbath allowed Colin to remain in the division where his wife makes money for his own household.

Neither Colin’s nor French’s offices would say when — or even if — they were being transferred. The question remains if Colbath is going to allow the judges to remain in the Probate & Guardianship Division. Colin announced Tuesday that he is not seeking re-election.

Another question is whether Colbath is going to allow Colin to continue to run the Courts Elder Care Program that would funnel guardianship disputes to mediation. The mediation arena is lucrative and filled with former judges.

Probate Court Operations Manager Tehera Smith referred questions back to Colbath regarding Colin’s position with the program or whether it came with a pay boost.

Kogan, speaking to The Post on Wednesday, applauded some of the changes while wondering about the lack of details on others.

“There are a lot of things here that I don’t know what he means,” said the former chief justice, specifically mentioning the training.

Kogan said transferring judges can go along way in restoring faith in the adult guardianship system in Palm Beach County.

“Rotation of personnel is a very, very good thing,” he said. “It doesn’t allow anyone or any group of judges to become entrenched where they are actually controlling comings and goings in that one division.”

He also said the wheel is used successfully in criminal court to restore the appearance of fairness.

Besides questions about where Colin will land — sources indicate it will be the civil division — concerns remain from families of Savitt’s elderly wards about what Colbath will do concerning the professional guardian. It is unknown whether the standardization of billing practices means he is cracking down on her for taking tens of thousands of dollars in fees in guardianship and probate cases without prior judicial approval.

The Clerk & Comptroller’s Office said in more than 900 cases it has investigated, Savitt was the only guardian who took fees before judicial approval.

Dr. Sam Sugar, co-founder of Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship, said Colbath should be able to bar Savitt from working as a professional guardian in Palm Beach County.

“The only people who can discipline guardians are the judges who appoint them,” Sugar said.

Sugar’s advocate group is behind this past year’s new state law that addressed favoritism among judges toward certain guardians and a bill currently working its way through the Legislature that will give the state its first regulatory authority over the profession. He was not impressed with Colbath’s reforms.

He said that a guardianship wheel has not protected families in Miami-Dade.

On the issue of training, Sugar said, “These judges and their personnel are experts in probate law.”

As for Savitt, Kogan said attorneys will be cautious about representing her or referring guardianships to her.

“They are going to be afraid because every case she gets is going to be scrutinized,” he said.

And judges will also shy away from appointing Savitt.

“Remember, judges are political animals and they have to run for reelection,” Kogan said. “They don’t want to read more stories about how they appointed Savitt to a particular case and have this blow up again.”

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