Candidates for Brooklyn judgeships logged on to a virtual forum Tuesday night to introduce themselves to voters. In the process, they provided a glimpse into some of the complex back-room dealings that underpin judicial elections in New York.
The Surrogate’s Court hears cases involving the probate of wills, the administration of estates and trust proceedings. Brooklyn’ two surrogate’s judges (only one slot is open this cycle), also play a critical role in the local Democratic party’s ability to dole out patronage, because they can give out lucrative estate cases to lawyers favored by the party.
Particularly problematic is the court’s Public Administrator’s office, which handles the assets of those who die without wills. The surrogate’s judges, who serve 14-year terms, appoints the public administrator, which means the (often party-aligned) judge has the unique power to appoint the head of a city agency and the office’s chief lawyer. As a result, the position often goes to politically connected insiders who frequently wind up at the center of financial scandal.
State Assemblymember Robert Carroll recently introduced a bill to reform the office by transferring control to the mayor. And perhaps unsurprisingly, the opinion of the two Surrogate’s Court judicial candidates who attended the forum was split along the lines of their relationship with the Brooklyn Democratic Party.
“I want to be able to say, true transparency, this is not my person, that I am looking at every case individually,” said Judge Rosemarie Montalbano, a current Kings County Supreme Court Justice who has been endorsed by reform-minded political clubs like the Independent Neighborhood Democrats and the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club.
“My job is to be the gatekeeper, in that the public administrator has a duty and the fiduciaries have a duty, and I want to hold them to that,” Montalbano said.
But Dweynie Paul, a civil court judge who has the party’s backing and who Party Chair Rodneyse Bichotte has referred to as “my sister,” had a different view. She argued that the reform, rather than the status quo, would be unacceptably political.
If the administrator appointment is made by the mayor or an elected official, Paul said, “it ties in the opportunity for politics to get in the way of what the judge is supposed to do. And judges are away from politics and focus on what’s right, what’s just, under the law. And so I believe that as Surrogate, I can maintain that role.”
Paul has come under additional scrutiny following THE CITY’s story on a lawsuit over wages owed to a caretaker of her mother.
Another hint at the party machine’s complex relationship with the judiciary came during conversations with candidates for the Kings County Civil Court, which is responsible for cases where parties are seeking monetary relief up to $25,000, landlord-tenant matters and cases involving maintenance of housing standards. Candidates serve 10-year terms.
Separately from its endorsement process, the Brooklyn Democratic Party also oversees a screening committee tasked with reviewing candidates’ qualifications and certifying (or not) their fitness for the office. The committee includes members from various bar associations and legal groups, and is generally regarded as functionally sound and less political than the endorsement process.
“Virtually everyone goes before the screening panel even if you are just considering a run,” Harley Diamond, an attorney who has previously served on such panels, wrote in the event’s Zoom chat. “So frequently the county candidates aren’t even chosen yet.”
But not all candidates saw it that way.
“I’ve been a registered Democrat but I have not gone to functions or dinners or anything like that,” said Marva Brown, a Legal Aid Society attorney running in the Civil Court’s 2nd Municipal District, which includes Bed-Stuy and parts of Crown Heights. “And so I made the strategic decision not to apply for that screening.”
She said she had instead submitted an application to the Working Families Party for consideration. Several other bar associations and legal organizations usually offer independent screenings for such judicial races, though none have publicly released their rulings so far.
Another candidate, Casilda Roper-Simpson, who is running for a countywide Civil Court seat, also said she had not submitted a screening application to the party.
The rest of the candidates at the forum, including housing court judge Heela Capell and law clerk Inga O’Neale (Civil Court Countywide) as well as District Council 37 attorney Lisa Lewis and law clerk Lola Waterman (Civil Court 2nd District) were all approved by the party screening committee this year or in recent years. The same was true of Paul and Montalbano.
Besides Paul, Capell and O’Neale have the Brooklyn Democratic Party’s backing, as does Sharen Hudson, who is also running for reelection to the Civil Court.
The primary election is June 22nd.