If initial expressions voiced by a judge at a Monday hearing hold, Shelly Sterling could win her attempt to control the family’s trust and sell the Clippers without her husband, Donald, even being allowed to present evidence to prove that he remains mentally competent.
Judge Michael Levanas said in a probate hearing that he found a provision of the Sterling Family Trust unambiguous in allowing the removal of a trustee who has been declared incapacitated by two experts. Shelly Sterling followed that procedure last month in pushing her husband aside, and Levanas said he will have to be persuaded that Donald Sterling should even have the opportunity to present rebuttal witnesses.
“As I sit here right now, I don’t see how this document is ambiguous and you are going to go behind it” to have a full hearing into Donald Sterling's mental competency, Levanas told the lawyers in a courtroom filled with media representatives.
He said the provision in the trust was written, in fact, to allow disqualification of a trustee without having to go to court. And unless there is some reason to question the codicil, he was not sure his intervention is needed.
“I don’t know why you need a court. Essentially, if a trustee has the power, they have the power,” Levanas said. “Why is it you need the court to be involved?”
An attorney representing former Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer — the prospective buyer of the Clippers for $2 billion — said the judge’s ruling is needed, despite the clarity of the trust, to allow the record-setting sale to go ahead.
“Even though it’s a simple case, sometimes the court needs to be able to say ‘Yes, trustee, you are acting in accordance with your duties and in accordance with the rules of the trust,” said Adam F. Streisand, who represents Ballmer.
Ballmer and Shelly Sterling say that is crucial the judge clarify her right to sell the team to the Seattle-based tech magnate before other NBA owners meet July 15. That is when those league governors would potentially approve Ballmer as the new 30th member of their exclusive club.
Donald Sterling was fined $2.5 million, banned for life from the NBA and subjected to loss of his team after an audio recording revealed him telling a companion she should not bring African Americans to Clippers games.
Donald Sterling’s lawyers said Monday they will show the judge that there were irregularities in the trust, including the removal last December of a provision that would have allowed Sterling to bring in his own experts to contest any future finding of incapacity.
Attorney Max Blecher said that provision inadvertently was removed from the trust and should be restored.
But lawyers for Shelly Sterling said that Donald Sterling agreed to the trust language and to having either he or his wife removed if two experts ever ruled that they were not mentally competent to serve.