By Alan Sorensen
In a decision filed with its clerk of court this morning, the Montana Supreme Court officially disbarred former Havre lawyer Morton B. Goldstein. The decision was reached in a 5 to 2 vote.
The two dissenting justices, W. William Leaphart and James C. Nelson, reportedly voted against disbarment because they disagreed with the court's earlier decision to approve its current method of investigating and disciplining the state's attorneys.
Goldstein, who resigned his "attorney membership" in a letter he filed with the Supreme Court March 1, 1999, also was ordered to pay all costs associated with the Commission on Practice proceedings. The ruling said the $27,109.67 total must be paid to the Commission on Practice within 30 days of the ruling, unless otherwise ordered by the court.
The Commission on Practice investigated allegations against Goldstein in 1997 and 1998 and filed its recommendation for his disbarment with the Montana Supreme Court in March 1998.
The disbarment action stemmed from Goldstein's handling of the estate of the late Kenneth G. Axvig, who died Aug. 276, 1996. Goldstein wrote a will that left half of Axvig's estate, estimated at more than $2 million, to Goldstein and disinherited Axvig's only child, Ole Axvig.
The hearing on state investigator A. Lance Tonn's recommendation to disbar Goldstein was held March 26, 1998, in Great Falls.
The commission's unanimous recommendation included a 15-page report of facts and findings and said the recommendations were not made lightly.
"The unanimous consensus of the participating members is that the conduct of Respondent was so incredibly egregious that the Commission recommends that Respondent be disbarred from the practice of law in the State of Montana and that his name be stricken from the rolls of licensed attorneys."
The commission added that Goldstein should be made to pay the entire costs incurred by the commission in prosecuting his case.
Axvig, a Kremlin-area farmer, had suffered a heart attack, stroke and a broken hip between April 1990 and September 1993. He was moved into Northern Montana Long-Term Care after he broke his hip in September 1993. Axvig was still residing on the fourth-flour unit at Northern Montana Hospital when Goldstein said he first met him in late 1995.
Goldstein executed medical and general powers of attorney on Dec. 22, 1995, that gave him power over all of Axvig's affairs. On Dec. 29, 1995, he removed Axvig from the long-term care unit and eventually moved him into Axvig's Highland Park home.
The commission's report recounted what it called several questionable, unethical and illegal actions by Goldstein.
More than $1 million in cash and checks, most of it without any accompanying written bills or receipts, was spent from Axvig's estate during the 20 months Goldstein was Axvig's lawyer.
A Havre jury concluded in August 1997 that Goldstein used undue influence and took advantage of Axvig's diminished mental capacities in preparing the 1996 will. Great Falls District Court Judge Thomas M. McKittrick, who presided over the case, subsequently named Ole Axvig representative of the estate.
Chief Justice J.A. Turnage wrote in the majority decision that the court accepted the Commission on Practice's findings and that its recommendations for punishment were justified and appropriate.
"After examining the record," Turnage wrote, "we conclude that Commission's findings, including those findings challenged by Mr. Goldstein, are supported by clear and convincing evidence."
Lawyers for Ole Axvig have filed suit in 12th Judicial District Court in Havre in an attempt to recover funds missing from the estate and alleging that Goldstein slandered Axvig.
Goldstein, contacted at his home in Havre this morning, said he hadn't heard of the decision yet.
"I haven't seen it," Goldstein told The Daily News in a telephone interview.
When asked what he might do, he said, "Well, it depends on what it says. But my guess is that I will have to wait and look at it."
Asked if he had any other comments to make on the court's decision, Goldstein said, "No, because I haven't seen it."