The Secret Court - Surrogate's race draws big political guns- but not much interest from voters
by Susan Camprielo (SEE: http://www.susancampriello.com)
Intense race to replace Surrogate
Posted by admin under News, Print Clips - Sunday, August 17, 2008
As seen in City Hall.
Race this year draws big political guns, but still not much interest from voters In New York, sometimes standing out in a crowd can be difficult. On the corner of Broadway and West 96th streets one humid evening, John Reddy, Jr., a candidate for New York County Surrogate’s Court, competed for attention with a pair of people promoting a paint sale and a scattering of MTA employees advising commuters that a station entrance was closed. In his khakis, blue shirt and red striped tie, Reddy might have blended in with the passing New Yorkers. But he was standing still, and two staffers formed a wall of campaign signs behind him. “Hi, Manhattan Democrat?” he chirped, roughly 30 times a minute, while shaking hand with and passing campaign flyers to anyone who stopped.
One man stopped for a brief chat, expressing frustration at what he perceives as corruption on the Surrogate’s Court. Reddy is running on a platform of ideas to change the way the court was run. He tried to make his case to the man, but did not appear to succeed. “There’s nothing you can do about it, John,” he said. “I’ll see what I can do,” Reddy called after him. Reddy is not the only candidate talking change in the race to succeed Judge Renee Roth, who is aging off the court at 70 this year. The Surrogate’s Court settles matters concerning adoptions, guardians, estates and wills of the deceased, but once again this year, the debate about its future is a lively one. And like the Upper West Side corner, the race is crowded, with Judge Milton Tingling and Nora Anderson also vying for the Democratic nomination in the Sept. 9 primary.
Surrogate laws and practices are idiosyncratic. The three candidates agree that the general public is unfamiliar with the court, and that lawyers who practice in court are not always well informed either. The candidates also hope to speed up litigation time. The primary race has already drawn more attention than normal due to the number of big names in local politics it has drawn. John Reddy has hired The Parkside Group as his consultant. Chung Seto, and Kevin Wardally of Bill Lynch Associates are overseeing Tingling’s fundraising and campaigning. Former Mayor David Dinkins (D) and Rep. Charles Rangel (D-Manhattan) are among Tingling’s most public supporters. Nora Anderson has Michael Oliva managing her campaign and Lisa Hernandez Gioia of The Esler Group doing her fundraising. The morning after Reddy argued with the man about corruption on the court, Tingling, who has been a Manhattan Supreme Court justice for seven years, met voters along 135th Street. Council Member Inez Dickens (D-Manhattan) stood next to Tingling, announcing his presence to the people trickling into the subway station.
“Good morning, good morning! This is Judge Tingling, he’s running for Surrogate’s Court. Please support him, he’s from my community,” she shouted, nearly drowning out buses and trucks on Lenox Avenue. Behind her, staff from a consulting firm handed flyers to commuters. Tingling greeted people more intimately, turning every handshake into an elongated arm grasp. One woman stopped, looking confused. The candidate approached asking slowly, “No habla Inglés?” When she shook her head, Tingling turned his flyer over, revealing his qualifications written in Spanish. Translators, Tingling said, are just part of the two-pronged approach to making the court more accessible to Manhattan’s diverse population. Translators could not only assist those involved with cases in the court, but can help teach people about wills and estates. Such meetings could take place in the satellite court offices Tingling said he hopes to open as part of this plan.
Most people know little about the Surrogate’s Court beyond being familiar with celebrity cases, like those of Woody Allen, Brooke Astor and J. Seward Johnson, or when they land in the court themselves. Tingling hopes to enhance the court’s presence in the public consciousness so that the first experience the average New Yorker has with the court is not as a litigant. “There are cases going on there, there are people being affected all the time, but nobody knows,” he said. “It’s basically a secret court.” Reddy hopes to open the court by making it more friendly and welcoming to those unfamiliar with Surrogate’s practices. As more lawyers become familiar with the court, the court will become less of a mystery to litigants, he said. Reddy said his 13 years as counsel to the public administrator of New York County has prepared him for the bench. Fewer than three years after being hired, Reddy had closed over 2,000 cases full of vague language or instructions that had been open for at least four years, he said. He is hopeful that he will be able to close Surrogate cases, some of which have been open even longer.
Anderson, who was a clerk in the court under former Surrogate Eve Preminger for nearly five years and has litigated in the court, has a different idea for speeding up the court process. If elected, she would rotate pro se clerks around the court so that they would learn to master all areas of the court and better assist litigants who may be unfamiliar with the court’s proceedings. Rotating existing staff would eliminate the need to hire, and pay, more clerks, she said. Moving clerks around departments would force clerks to become familiar with all aspects of the court, making them generally more familiar with practices than they currently are.
Plus, she said she would use her position as judge to educate people in an effort to keep them from having to come to court in the first place, since all court proceedings can become expensive, time consuming and stressful for litigants. She has cut back her hours with the Brooklyn law firm Seth Rubenstein, P.C. in order to spend time campaigning at green markets, street fairs and on sidewalks, such as the one along Eighth Avenue between 22nd and 23rd streets where, one recent evening, she hopped, teetered and pirouetted in heels, dodging and followed potential voters. Wearing a tailored black suit over a sleeveless knit zebra-print top, she tried to stop pedestrian traffic. “Hi, I’m running for Surrogate Court, and I need your support,” she said. “Hi, I’m running to be a judge. I’ve got a great website.” She spent a lot of the time telling people how to register as Democrats so they could vote. She spent just as much time giving shouted-out summaries of what the court does and what she would do as judge if they voted for her. “A large part of this campaign,” she said, “has been education.”