Two Civil Court judges who ascended to the bench after spending the bulk of their careers working for other judges say they are ready to take on the unusual judicial challenges of Manhattan Surrogate’s Court.
Barbara Jaffe and Rita Mella are running in the Sept. 13 Democratic primary to replace Kristen Booth Glen, who has reached the mandatory retirement age of 70, as one of the borough’s two surrogates. There is no Republican candidate.
It is one of the few positions that has generated much competition in the primary. As of about two weeks ago, the candidates had raised a combined $320,000, much of it from their own pocketbooks and law firm contributions.
As they scour the borough for support in what is likely to be a low-turnout race, both candidates say they have found that the Surrogate’s Court is a mystery to most prospective voters.
“You would not be surprised when I tell you that most people have no idea what Surrogate’s Court does,” Mella said.
Jaffe said she often introduces herself by prompting voters, “You know, it’s the court that handles trusts and probate and wills.”
The Surrogate’s Court hears cases involving the affairs of decedents, including the probate of wills and the administration of estates. It also handles adoptions and appoints guardians ad litem for incapacitated people.
The surrogate serves a 10-year term and is paid $160,000 a year, a salary that is scheduled to increase to $167,000 on April 1, 2013, and to $174,000 on April 1, 2014.
Former Nassau Surrogate Raymond Radigan said the job is one that puts a premium on the ability to manage a large staff.
“You train the staff and you get out and speak,” said Radigan, who has contributed $500 to Mella’s campaign. “I used to do 100 speeches a year. You speak to various senior citizens group, telling them what the court is about and how they can help by getting their estates in order. We also educate the lawyers so that when they sit down with clients to do estate planning, they know what to do.”
Jaffe, 60, worked as a law clerk for 16 years, nine for Supreme Court Justice Marcy Kahn of Manhattan, before being elected to the Civil Court in a Manhattan-wide seat in 2001. She has focused on matrimonial cases since being appointed an acting Supreme Court justice in 2010.
Jaffe said the work on matrimonial matters, in particular, has prepared her for being a surrogate.
“I try custody cases, I try complex financial matters, I distribute marital assets, which is a lot like distributing decedents’ assets,” she said. “I feel the pain of these people. I feel the pain of divorcing spouses. I feel the pain of people who are trying to get a will probated. Being able to feel that pain and resolve such cases, I think that qualifies me and is excellent preparation to be surrogate.”
Jaffe settled on the law as a career only after spending more than six years in the wholesale antiques business as an administrator for Madison Galleries Ltd. She studied art history and Italian Renaissance painters at Syracuse University and in Florence, Italy.
She said that her background in antiques and the arts may not be as irrelevant to the surrogate’s post as it might seem.
“I was rigorously taught how to research and analyze,” she said. “I did research in history, in philosophy, in religion, in sociology, in music. I have a very broad liberal arts background that I believe is essential to a surrogate, who is now confronting all of the end-of-life problems and the whole range of life’s issues.”
Mella, 50, had an undergraduate degree when she came to the United States at age 22 from the Dominican Republican to study Latin American history.
She is stressing the administrative skills she honed during the 13 years she spent as a law clerk for Brooklyn Civil Court Judges Richard Rivera and Margarita López Torres. She also worked for López Torres during López Torres’ first year as Brooklyn Surrogate.
Since her election to Civil Court in 2006, Mella has sat in Criminal Court in Manhattan.
Mella observed that the surrogate focuses more on administration than does any other trial-level judge. She noted that there were only 12 hearings held in the 10,100 proceedings filed before the Manhattan surrogate in 2011, excluding the usually perfunctory proceedings in adoption cases.
“Take a typical case where somebody is going to adopt a child,” Mella said. “There is no litigation involved other than the processing of the paperwork and there is a short interview with the judge where everything is finalized.”
“Even simpler than that,” Mella said, are instances where residents die without immediate family members or without having designated anyone to serve as executor of their estates. Those cases are referred to the office of the public administrator, who is designated by the surrogate.
The administrator is responsible for handling the often-mundane tasks associated with tying up the loose ends of an estate such as getting the power shut off at the deceased’s home.
“There is no litigation involved in that,” Mella noted.
It has been the administrative aspects of the surrogate’s job, and, in particular, the appointment of outside attorneys, that have gotten surrogates in Brooklyn and the Bronx in trouble.
Michael Feinberg was ousted as surrogate in Brooklyn in 2005 by the Court of Appeals, which found that he failed to require an attorney who received $8.6 million in legal fees from estates settled through the Surrogate’s Court to give detailed accounting of his work. The ruling upheld a removal recommendation by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct.
In a case that is still unfolding, commission administrator Robert Tembeckjian has called for the removal of Bronx Surrogate Lee Holzman for failing to exercise appropriate oversight over bills submitted by Michael Lippman, the counsel for the public administrator (NYLJ, July 24). A hearing will be held on the recommended sanction on Sept. 20.
In any case, Holzman must step down on Dec. 31 because he has reached the mandatory retirement age of 70.
The Manhattan Surrogate’s Court has not been tarnished by such public scandals.
Both Jaffe and Mella said they would follow the procedures established by the Office of Court Administration and Glen for assigning outside lawyers in cases where they are required. Under that system, qualified attorneys are chosen on an alphabetical basis from lists provided by OCA, except in instances where special expertise is needed.
Jaffe said any taint of favoritism would be removed by a new state rule barring attorneys from appearing before judges to whom the lawyers or their firms have contributed more than $2,500 and $3,500, respectively, within two years.
Mella said that lawyers appointed in some cases before surrogates require “tremendous expertise,” but she acknowledged that the court also has acquired the perception of being an “elitist institution and a very exclusive club.”
Mella said she would like to work with minority bar groups to get more lawyers the training and experience needed to qualify for the OCA’s list of fiduciaries approved for assignments before the surrogate.
“It is not a group that gets new blood on a regular basis,” Mella said. “We have an obligation to bring new blood to the attorneys on lists that are eligible for assignment.”
Mella would be the first New York City surrogate of Dominican ancestry, although she said that is not a major selling point in her campaign.
“I do not believe I am running on an ethnic background,” she said. “I do not deny who I am. I am proud of who I am, but that is not the message that I am sending.”
Jaffe said she would like to introduce procedures to lighten the burden on Surrogate’s Court. For instance, she advocates having the issue of attorney fees in wrongful death cases decided in Supreme Court instead of transferring the issue to the Surrogate’s Court, where payments that will ultimately come out of the proceeds of an estate are at issue.
Low Turnout Expected
This year’s primary is being held on a Thursday to avoid conflicting with the commemoration of those killed in the terror attacks on the World Trade Center on Tuesday, Sept. 11.
Mella said her campaign anticipates a “very low” turnout and expects the bulk of her resources to go to mailings targeted at Democrats active in Manhattan political clubs, labor unions, community groups and others considered most likely to vote in a primary, no matter the marquee races at the top of the ballot.
“What a campaign does is it tries to reach prime voters,” Mella said. “To give you an idea, there are about 600,000 registered Democrats in Manhattan, but most of those people will not vote. What you try to do is to get to the prime voters. Still, even if you narrow the universe to the prime voters, it is very expensive to get to those people.”
She said it is possible that fewer than 10 percent of Manhattan’s registered Democrats will decide the primary.
As of Aug. 11, Mella reported $98,884 on hand in her campaign fund and raising just over $170,000 in total for the 2012 primary. Jaffe’s latest filing with the state Board of Elections showed she had $110,544 on hand through Aug. 13 and had raised just over $150,000.
Each candidate was the single largest benefactor to their campaign. Jaffe loaned her campaign $50,000; Mella loaned hers $20,000, as well as contributing $5,000 outright.
Other significant contributions came from lawyers and law firms with significant estate and matrimonial practices.
Cohen Rabin Stine Schumann donated $2,000 to Jaffe while Withers Bergman donated $4,500 to Mella.
Some firms gave to both candidates. Greenfield, Stein & Senior contributed $3,495 to Mella on March 14. Four months later, it donated $2,500 to Jaffe. Mazur, Carp & Rosen contributed $3,000 to Mella and $1,500 to Jaffe.
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