Former judge Chris Wilmoth is qualified to serve as a “Special Judge” under Chapter 151 of the Texas Civil Practices and Remedies Code. For attorneys with clients wanting to achieve a quicker, more streamlined, and more predictable timetable for resolution of litigation than the probate courts can typically provide, Mr. Wilmoth can under Texas law conduct a special bench trial. Judgment from that special bench trial is enforceable by law, and appealable directly to the Court of Appeals.
As presiding judge of Dallas County Probate Court Number 2 until December 2014, Chris Wilmoth conducted over 6000 hearings and held numerous bench and jury trials. He earned a reputation as a fair, compassionate, and pragmatic judge. In the 2013 Dallas Bar Association Judicial Evaluation Poll, Judge Wilmoth received over 90% approval for his impartiality, preparedness, and timely decisions. His overall approval rating of 87% was the highest for a newly elected statutory probate judge in over 20 years. Chris is a member of the faculty of the Texas College of Probate Judges and has taught judges from across the state about monitoring guardianships since June 2013. He is also a member of the Texas Judicial Branch Certification Commission’s Guardianship Certification Board.
Rules of Proceeding Before a Special Judge
Under Chapter 151 of the Texas Civil Practices and Remedies Code, parties to any civil litigation, including probate litigation, may choose to retain a “Special Judge” instead of proceeding to trial before the court or a jury.
The requirements for trial by special judge follow:
- The special judge selected must be a retired or former judge who has served for at least four years as judge of a district court, statutory county court, statutory probate court, or appellate court; has developed substantial experience in her area of specialty; has not been removed from office or resigned while under investigation for discipline or removal; and completes at least five days of continuing legal education annually.
- The parties must file a written motion with the court announcing the referral, waiving the right to trial by jury, stating the issues to be referred (which can be all or any of the issues in the case) and stating the time and place agreed upon for trial and the name of the special judge.
- The motion must state that the special judge has agreed to hear the case and the fee the parties have agreed to pay the special judge;
- All statutes and rules governing procedure and evidence apply to the trial;
- The trial before the special judge must be reported by a qualified court reporter;
- Trial should be held at a non-public forum selected by the special judge (usually his or her law office); and,
- The special judge’s verdict must be submitted within 60 days after conclusion of the trial.
Costs of the trial by special judge, including the fees of the judge and the court reporter, are shared equally by the parties.
Advantages and Effect of Proceeding Before a Special Judge
According to Judge Marty Lowy (Former) , in an article appearing in Headnotes, published by the Dallas Bar Association:
“Advantages of a trial by special judge as compared to ordinary litigation include privacy, the ability to select a judge with experience suited to the case, and the ability to set the trial for a date certain without competing with other cases on the referring judge’s docket. The parties will avoid the expense of preparing—perhaps several times—for trial settings that do not pan out. The unpredictability and additional time and costs of trial by jury can be eliminated. If the entire case is referred to the special judge, there should be ready access to the judge for the resolution of discovery disputes and other pretrial matters.
As compared to arbitration, the principal advantages are that the special judge will try the case under all applicable statutes and rules, and that the parties’ rights of appeal are fully preserved. Many parties who have been through high-stakes arbitrations have found that the savings of time and money purportedly offered by arbitration are largely illusory. And it has become increasingly common for the losing party to engage in protracted litigation seeking to vacate the award, even though the grounds for vacating an award are extremely limited, and do not include errors of fact or law committed by the arbitrator(s).
Obviously, the cost of a trial by special judge is a factor to be considered. However, as indicated above, there can be offsetting savings derived from the certainty of the trial setting. The cost of a trial by special judge also should be comparable to the cost of arbitration with a single arbitrator, and will almost certainly be much less than arbitration before a panel.”
Using a Special Judge gives the parties the ability to streamline the proceedings, obtain a quicker judgment (appealable to the appeals court), and have a more predictable timeline to give to the client. It is a desirable “third path” to traditional litigation or arbitration.