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The San Bernardino County Bar Association honored probate attorney Donnasue Smith Ortiz with the John B. Surr Award Nov. 9.

“I have always said that the probate bar is a very supportive and collegial group of attorneys. I had some very good examples by attorneys like George Vinnedge, Chuck Althouse, Jeff Banks and many others. Many of those attorneys years ago received the John B. Surr Award also. I tried to follow in their footsteps, to be honorable and to be a mentor and to support other attorneys,” Smith Ortiz said.

Smith Ortiz joined the bar in 1988, and began volunteering as a temporary judge, filling in for judges who could not come to court, in 1994.

She said she spent so much time volunteering as a temporary judge because she wanted her colleagues to resolve their cases as fast as they could.

She volunteered with legal aid societies, provided training for the Inland Counties Legal Services and has been appointed as guardian by the court. She served as president of the San Bernardino County Bar Association 2003, president of the Western San Bernardino County Bar Association in 1996 and chair of the California Conference of Bar Associations in 2012. She started the Bench-Bar Probate Section of the bar association, and taught business law at Chaffey College from 1994 to 1996. She has also been a mediator.

“I can say without any hesitation that Donnasue was the best advocate for elderly, minor and disabled persons that I have ever experienced. She brought a combination of zealous advocacy, legal knowledge and empathy for her client that was unmatched,” said San Bernardino Superior Judge Tara Reilly.

“Her retirement is a tremendous loss to the probate court, to her current clients and to those persons in the future who will not benefit from her services,” Reilly said.

Attorney James Secord said she was a valuable help to others.

“She has been the voice to those whose voice was ignored, disregard trivialized by their caretakers and family members. Regarding her relation to the bar and fellow attorneys, she has always been willing to take time to mentor other attorneys, either new to the practice of law, or new to the probate practice,” Secord said.

Secord recounted the story of Smith Ortiz stepping up to help him when his wife died and he forgot to plan the funeral reception. Smith Ortiz realized he forgot to plan one, and hosted one herself at her house.

“It was the essence, and a clear example, of Donnasue’s gift of compassion, and I shall always be grateful,” Secord said.

Smith Ortiz is the 25th recipient of the John B. Surr Award, and the second female recipient. The John B. Surr Award was started in 1978, and is given out at the decision of the SBCBA, not annually. 

John Surr

San Bernardino Superior Judge Wilfred Schneider gave a historical account of John Surr, the attorney the award is named after.

Surr was born in the Philippines in 1906, his father was there representing a hardware and steel company. The Surrs moved to Berkeley, where Surr’s father practiced law. Surr graduated from Berkeley in 1928 and joined his uncle’s law practice in San Bernardino.

He specialized in water law, and was involved in litigation over water rights in Southern California. He served on the State Committee on Bar Examiners, on the Board of Governors of the State Bar, and as president of the San Diego County Bar Association. Surr handled pro bono cases, served on local committees and was his neighborhood’s air raid warden during World War II—he  couldn’t serve himself because he was colorblind. He founded the Edelweiss Ski Club, which built with him a ski hut at the 9,500-foot level of Mount San Gorgonio. He held court with lawyers at Cafe Madrid in San Bernardino’s Harris’ Department Store. 

“John was always courteous and polite. Many have said that he rarely ever uttered a profane word. In Cafe Madrid, they had a table that lawyers would go and join each other, and talk to them, and face each other, and communicate with each other. Not through Zoom. Not through CourtCall. Not through letters sent with a vindictive tone. But actually face to face, and that we have lost in our profession,” Schneider said.

This was Smith Ortiz’ second award-the Western San Bernardino Bar Association honored her with the Charles Althouse Lifetime Achievement Award Oct. 5.

Event

The Surr award was given at the SBCBA’s Installation & Awards Banquet in Redlands’ Mitten Building.

“What I do know is that all of you are working tirelessly, every day, to do right by your clients, to provide them a voice and to advocate zealously on their behalf. Being an advocate, giving your client a voice, enabling the process whereby they get judged fairly and on the merits. It’s a noble profession,” incoming SBCBA President Justin King said.

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