PUBLISHED: 15:58 EST, 17 May 2012 | UPDATED: 15:58 EST, 17 May 2012
Dispute: Rosa Parks’ estate has been in legal limbo since her death in 2005, when her relatives contested her will
A Michigan attorney has filed a complaint against a Wayne County probate judge and two court-appointed lawyers, claiming that they conspired to empty the estate of iconic civil rights activist Rosa Parks caught in a long-running legal dispute.
According to court documents filed by lawyer Stephen G. Cohen, Judge Freddie Burton Jr enabled attorneys John Chase Jr and Melvin Jefferson Jr to rack up more than $507,000 in mostly unnecessary legal fees that drained Parks’ estate, leaving it $88,000 in debt.
On her death in 2005 at the age of 92, Parks left nearly her entire considerable estate to the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute, which Cohen represents.
however, Parks’ 13 nieces and nephews challenged her 1998 will, unleashing a legal dispute.
Cohen said the judge used the dispute to strip the co-founder of the institute Elaine Steele and the organization itself of their share of Parks’ property, said to be worth up to $8 million, according to USA Today.
‘Chase and Jefferson, together with Judge Burton, illegally, maliciously and wrongfully conspired … for the illegal purpose of raiding Mrs Parks’ estate of its value,’ Cohen said in a 38-page probate petition.
Accused: Lawyer Stephen G. Cohen has claimed that Judge Freddie Burton Jr (pictured) enabled two probate attorneys to drain Rosa Parks’ estate of $507,000
He requested a jury trial in probate court and asked Burton to remove himself from presiding over Parks’ estate.
Probate experts are split over the outcome of Cohen’s lawsuit, with some saying that it is unlikely that he will be able to prove that a conspiracy took place and force the judge to recuse himself, while others suggesting that perhaps Burton will relent under pressure.
Cohen said he also wants Burton, Chase and Jefferson to restore all the money to the estate.
Icon: Parks is best known for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on an Alabama bus in 1955
If Burton refuses to recuse himself, Cohen plans to appeal the decision to Chief Wayne County Probate Judge Milton Mack Jr, to Wayne County Circuit Court and then to state appellate courts.
Parks is best known for committing an act of civil disobedience by refusing to give up her seat to a white man on an Alabama bus in 1955.
Year later, Parks, who had no children, set up an estate plan to give the bulk of her personal and intellectual property to the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development and Steele, her longtime friend and aide.
Defiant: Rosa Parks was tried in 1956 for violating a 1921 anti-boycott law as part of a city-wide boycott of Montgomery buses by African Americans
Parks’ estate plan called for Steele and retired 36th District Judge Adam Shakoor to handle the estate, but when Parks’ relatives contested the plan, accusing Steele of being overly involved in the will’s preparation, Burton appointed Chase and Jefferson to take charge.
The two sides remained locked in a legal battle until a confidential settlement was reached in February of 2007. Parks’ nieces and nephews received 20 per cent of her property and royalties from licensing her name, while the rest went to the Institute and Steele.
Although the agreement called for Burton to put Steele and Shakoor back in charge of the estate, Cohen said Burton refused, opening the door for Chase and Jefferson to continue to run up huge legal bills.
Trailblazer: Parks’ act of disobedience resulted in the banning of segregation on city buses in Montgomery, Alabama
Chase and Jefferson’s lawyer, Alan May, denied any conspiracy, and the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled that the fees were proper.
Last summer, Cohen asked the Michigan Supreme Court to overturn that decision.
In December of 2011 and again in January of 2012, the high court ordered Burton to put Steele and Shakoor back in charge of the estate.
Historic: In 1992, Rosa Parks appeared with then-Democratic candidate Bill Clinton during his presidential campaign
Tuesday’s petition accused Burton of gross abuse of judicial office documented through years of court transcripts, arrest warrants and contempt orders to intimidate the institute, Steele and their lawyers.
In March, Burton said he would issue an order implementing a December ruling by the state Supreme Court for Parks’ memorabilia to be returned to the nonprofit funded by her estate.
The high court also directed Chase and Jefferson be removed as estate fiduciaries.
Cohen, however, said the judge has not fully complied, continuing to defy Parks’ wishes ‘for the enrichment of himself and his court cronies,’ he said.