Brooklyn Surrogate's Court 2005

Keep up to date with the latest Newspaper and Internet articles on this year's Brooklyn Surrogate Court race

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Voting Wrongs Act

Daily News -- July 23, 2005
Editorial

The Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund has called on the Justice Department to rule that Gov. Pataki and the Legislature violated the federal Voting Rights Act last month when they created a new Surrogate's Court judgeship in Brooklyn. The feds should take their sweet time considering the matter.

Pataki, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno established the post in the final moments of the legislative session as part of a back-room deal that doled out judgeships to political bosses. The Brooklyn beneficiary was indicted Democratic chief Clarence Norman, for whom Surrogate's Court is a patronage trough.

Albany delivered the fiefdom directly into Norman's hands by establishing the judgeship as of Aug. 1, when the state's election calendar says it's too late to conduct a primary election for the seat. That being the case, the party gets to choose which of its hacks will appear on the November ballot and thus get the 14-year berth overseeing the estates of the dead.

But the election calendar offers another possibility. If the judgeship is vacant after Aug. 8, the governor or the state's chief administrative judge would get to appoint an interim surrogate for one year. The voters would then next year select a judge in the primary and general elections. By waiting to rule until after Aug. 8, the Justice Department would put the power where it belongs - with the voters, not the bosses.

Friday, July 22, 2005

A suspicious new judgeship

El Diario - July 22, 2005

EDITORIAL

We all have good reason to be suspicious about a new Surrogate Court Judge position in Brooklyn, created by Gov. George Pataki and the state Legislature as the legislative session in Albany was drawing to a close last month.

Last Thursday, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund asked the U.S. Department of Justice to find that Pataki and the state Legislature violated the federal Voting Rights Act when they created the new judgeship. The post in Brooklyn is one of 21 new judgeships the governor and the legislature established across the state, effective Aug. 1. That makes it too late to hold a primary election, according to the state election calendar, which means political party bosses get to appoint the party candidate.

In Brooklyn, which is overwhelmingly Democratic, the Democratic candidate is virtually guaranteed to be the winner in November. And the man making the appointment will be none other than party boss Clarence Norman, who is currently under indictment on corruption charges.

Because of a history of racial discrimination, Brooklyn is covered by the Voting Rights Act. Any decision to add or remove a judgeship must be approved by the Justice Department. PRLDEF argues that the elimination of a primary election can severely reduce minority participation, and has asked the Justice Department to stop the appointment of candidates.

We agree that this process must be halted. The stakes are high. The new judge would serve for 14 years or until he turns 70, the mandatory retirement age.

People all over the state are upset about the judgeships, largely seen as patronage positions created by Pataki at a time when he is considering a run for higher office. Even if the new judgeship in Brooklyn passes Justice Department review, the system should appoint an interim judge for a year. Voters would select the judge in a primary and general election next year. And that’s as it should be.

Rights Group Fights Judgeship Creation

RIGHTS GROUP FIGHTS JUDGESHIP CREATION

BY JOE MAHONEY - NY Daily News
July 22, 2005 Friday

A new set of judicial robes destined for Brooklyn could end up in mothballs because a civil rights group is going to the feds in a bid to block the controversial creation of the Surrogate Court position.

The Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund contends the Legislature violated the Voting Rights Act by ramming through a measure that shuts out voters from a chance to weigh in on judicial candidates in a primary election.

Citing the fact that Brooklyn falls under the Voting Rights Act, the group is asking the civil rights division of the U.S. Justice Department to intervene and stop the state from allowing the Nov. 8 general election for the Brooklyn surrogate judgeship to move forward.

"Clearly, the problem they are going to run up against is they violated the federal Voting Rights Act in the process of their machinations," Cesar Perales, the group's president, told the Daily News. "We certainly think that a court will agree with us."

Perales' group hopes the Justice Department will rule that the judgeship was engineered in a way that harms the ability of Hispanic and African-American voters to participate in the selection of the new judge.

State legislative insiders say the judgeship is expected to go to Assembly Codes Committee Chairman Joseph Lentol (D-Brooklyn), a key lieutenant in Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's operation at the state Capitol.

The Brooklyn judgeship was created as a part of a deal that allows Gov. Pataki to name 14 new Court of Claims judgeships and creates several other new judicial posts across the state.

In heavily Democratic Brooklyn, the judgeship was created in a way that empowers party boss Clarence Norman, an Assemblyman who works alongside Lentol in Silver's shop at the Capitol, to appoint the new surrogate.

Pataki aides said the state Board of Elections is drafting the "preclearance letter" the Justice Department needs in order to sign off on the state's effort to create the Brooklyn spot.

Justice Department officials reached in Washington last night had no immediate comment on the tempest erupting in Brooklyn.

Perales said his group was successful in delaying the city's mayoral primary in 1981 because of civil rights concerns. If the advocates get their way this time, lawmakers would be forced to go back to the drawing board - and enact legislation that paves the way for an open primary election, he said.

Group Opposes Adding Second Brooklyn Surrogate

NY Law Journal
July 22, 2005

Group Opposes Adding Second Brooklyn Surrogate
by Tom Perrotta

The Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund has asked the U.S. Justice Department to intervene in the election for a newly created Surrogate's Court seat in Brooklyn. Because of the timing of the Legislature's creation of the seat, the borough's second, there will be no time for a primary. Instead, Democratic and Republican leaders will choose candidates, with the Democrat likely becoming the overwhelming favorite in the heavily Democratic borough. The group claimed yesterday that Brooklyn is covered by §5 of the federal Voting Rights Act, owing to a history of racial discrimination. It contends the borough is subject to clearance requirements from the Justice Department when creating a new judicial position, and added that the elimination of a primary could reduce the ability of minorities to partake in the election. It further said it has asked the Justice Department to deny
any clearance requests.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

No More Debasing of the Surrogate's Court

Footnotes (www.footnotesny.com)
NO MORE DEBASING OF THE SURROGATES COURT

By Maurice Gumbs. July 19, 2005


A May 21 article on our website (Surrogate Court Judges Rush In To Protect A Brother) discussed Surrogate Judge Feinberg’s appeal. We suggested that Feinberg was fortunate that his proposed punishment was no more than removal from the bench. Feinberg had given away millions of $$$ to his pal Lou Rosenthal with no bills, no justification. This was money that rightfully belonged to other people, many of whom needed it desperately.

The Court of Appeals panel expressed its disgust when it accused Feinberg of “debasing the bench.” Debasing the bench is one of the worst betrayals in a civilized society. It is an act as gross and obscene as a judge sitting on the bench and defecating in his black robes. In the days of his ancestors, Mike Feinberg would have been stoned to death, or boiled in oil, or have his eyes taken out. And this defrocked judge is fortunate that he lives in a more permissive community.

Feinberg’s predecessor, Surrogate Judge Bernard Bloom was found guilty of deception and falsehood, and similarly escaped severe punishment. Bloom was approaching 70, and the kind Court of Appeals panel allowed him to continue on the bench with the understanding that he would retire at 70. Looking at the record, it appears to us that Bloom was also guilty of perjury. Perjury in Court generally invokes severe punishment. Usually a stern lecture from the judge and a jail sentence. Bloom was fortunate, and so is Feinberg who was also accused of lying, and dishonesty.

Bloom and Feinberg are fruit of the same tree. They emerged from the culture established by the semi-mobster and County Leader Meade Esposito. Judges like Bloom and Feinberg were comfortable with the sleaziness, corruption, and wheeling/dealing of Brooklyn politics. They saw the Surrogate Court as a market where huge sums of money could be transferred from vulnerable citizens into the bank accounts of their pals.

Once again there are candidates waiting to follow in the footsteps of Bloom and Feinberg. County Leader Clarence Norman expects to organize the election of another Surrogate Judge just as he did with Feinberg in 1996. Directly or indirectly he appears to have two candidates lined up to replace Mike Feinberg. We understand that he hopes to put the Surrogate Court in the hands of a member of the First Baptist Church or in the hands of the husband of a District Leader who has been his loyal supporter.

If we didn’t know before, we should know it after Bloom and Feinberg. Putting the Surrogates Court in the hands of County-supported candidates is like sending a 7 year old kid to a sleep-away camp run by a pedophile.

The Surrogates Court used to be called the Widows and Orphans Court. It’s a Court for human beings who are in desperate need of a fair, honest, and caring judge. Instead, Brooklyn’s political leaders see it as a hunting ground for predators. The Surrogates Court has turned into a place where there is a license to steal money, homes, and other property from those who need help.

Footnotes has received dozens of letters from victims of the Surrogates Courts.

Under Bloom and Feinberg there may be hundreds of people who lost homes, money that they were supposed to inherit from relatives, and estates that were gobbled up by lawyers and receivers in the Surrogates Court. Many of these were elderly people, sick people, and children, and poor people.

Some years ago columnist Jimmy Breslin gave us a look into the Surrogates Court when he told the story of a 18 year old Mexican worker who was crushed and drowned in cement in a Williamsburg building in 2000. The builder was found guilty and the Federal Court placed the value of the young Mexican’s life at $100,000. The payment was promptly made in Federal Court in 2001, and the check sent to Mike Feinberg’s Surrogates Court from which the funds were to be sent to the family in Mexico. Breslin recalls dealing with the Public Administrator’s Office a year later trying to get them to send out a check to the young man’s family. He finally got through to Marietta Smalls and found Lou Rosenthal sitting on the $100,000 deposit. Meanwhile, the boy’s family was in desperate condition in Mexico where they had been living off the money he was sending back home while alive.

And finally Breslin described how after more than a year, Lou Rosenthal finally sent a check to the family. And Rosenthal had deducted $15,000 which he claimed was his fee. In fact, Rosenthal indicated that it was far less than his usual fee. We get the feeling that if it were not for Jimmy Breslin, it could have taken a decade for that money to get to Mexico, and by that time, Rosenthal’s fee could have increased to $50.000 Judging from the stories we hear, this was standard procedure under Surrogates Court Judges Bloom and Feinberg.

Communities are defined by the way they treat their widows, orphans, the needy, the sick, the helpless. Brooklyn will be defined by its choice of its new Surrogates Court Judge. This year’s candidates for Surrogates Court Judge will make promises about their future righteousness. That’s what Bloom did. That’s what Feinberg did. They claimed to care. They swore they would be reformers.

And then they proceeded to debase the Court.

There is a simple test by which to eliminate individuals who seek to fill the position of Surrogates Judge. It has nothing to do with glossy literature, fine speeches or the support of County Leadership, and ClubHouse politicians.

Brooklyn cannot afford to continue “debasing” its Surrogate Court with judges backed by the County Leader and other political predators. It was County Leader Clarence Norman who sponsored Mike Feinberg as his candidate for Surrogate Court Judge in 1996. Unless the goal is to put another Feinberg in office, any candidate affiliated with the County Leader should automatically be eliminated. We’ve been there…Done that.

Footnotes has been told that candidate Diane Johnson is a longstanding member of the First Baptist Church where Clarence Norman’s father is the pastor and Clarence himself is a distinguished officer. We understand that Diane is one of maybe 5 or 6 judges who are members of this church. How extraordinary!! If the information about Ms. Johnson is true, then in our view she is utterly disqualified from consideration.

District Leader Lori Knipel has been one of Clarence Norman’s faithful supporters. Not only has she worked to keep Clarence as County Leader, but Lori was instrumental in delivering the County Committee vote which gave Carl Andrews the Democratic line in the Special Election for State Senate. It appears that County Leader Clarence has already rewarded Lori for her loyalty by making her husband a judge. And now Lori seeks to put her husband in a position where he can control the wealthiest Court in Brooklyn. Another Feinberg in the making.

Clearly differentiated from the other candidates is Judge Margarita Lopez Torres. Although she is one of the most senior judges in Brooklyn, and has an impeccable reputation, Judge Margarita Lopez Torres has not been nominated to the State Supreme Court by County Leadership.

Her independence and her refusal to let politicians control her decisions in Court have made Judge Lopez Torres untouchable by the power-brokers who corrupt the Courts. There is no other judge in Brooklyn dead, half-dead or alive who has had the courage to speak out against the corrupt practices that debase the Courts of Brooklyn. In her fearless integrity, Judge Lopez Torres, a gentle, quiet mother towers above her peers. Her record qualifies her to preside over a Court where more than in any other Court, the people need the Judge to be their advocate.

New York State’s Court of Appeal is trying on its end to bring an end to corruption in Brooklyn. Within a month they have sent two strong messages. It is now up to Brooklynites and their civic leaders. To our delight, Congressman Major Owens is once again fighting for decency and against corruption just as he did three decades ago. Major, together with Congresmembers Towns and Velasquez have joined to support Judge Torres. We wonder what will keep Anthony Weiner from joining his colleagues.

And what about Mayor Mike Bloomberg? Judge Margarita Lopez Torres offers a unique opportunity for the Mayor to join the demand for the end of debasing Brooklyn’s Courts. The Mayor can use his bully pulpit to speak out against the disgrace of two new Surrogates Court judges being chosen by a County Leader who is likely to be in jail before their first year in office is over. It would be terrific if Mike Bloomberg finds a legal way to put support behind the best candidate with the least money. And even if the Mayor simply shines the spotlight on this contest and raises the awareness of the critical issues involved, he would finally demonstrate a level of moral leadership.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Congressmembers endorse a Latina Judge

El Diario 7/19/05

Congresistas respaldan a jueza latina
Eva Sanchis/EDLP

Nueva York — Tres congresistas de Brooklyn respadaron ayer a una conocida jueza latina para un puesto vacante en de la Corte de Sucesiones de Brooklyn.

Los congresistas afroamericanos Edolphus Towns y Major Owens y la congresista puertorriqueña Nydia Velázquez apoyaron a Margarita López Torres, la primera mujer latina en ser elegida a la Corte Civil de Brooklyn en 1992, por su fuerte independencia e integridad.

“Todo el que se postula a la corte de Sucesiones lo hace como un reformador”, dijo el congresista Owens, “pero sólo Margarita López Torres ha defendido consistentemente la independencia judicial, sin importarle los riesgos”.

López se postula en la primaria demócrata para el puesto que dejó Michael Feinberg, después de que una investigación interna demostrase que un amigo suyo había estafado millones de dólares a viudas y huérfanos en excesivos cobros por documentos legales.

En el 2002, López, de 53 años y originaria de Puerto Rico, fue reelegida jueza de la Corte Civil a pesar de no obtener el respaldo del Partido Demócrata de Brooklyn por negarse a contratar a personas sugeridas por el partido. De ser elegida jueza de la Corte de Sucesiones de Brooklyn, López se convertiría en la primera latina del estado y en la primera mujer de la corte de Brooklyn en lograrlo.

López reafirmó ayer su compromiso contra el nepotismo y la contratación de personas por su afiliación política. “Si salgo elegida, prometo sólo contratar a gente por sus méritos y no por sus conexiones políticas”, dijo. “Estaré segura de que tienen la preparación adecuada para el puesto”, agregó.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Race and the race for judge

Daily News 7-8-05
by Errol Louis
Race and the race for judge

As noted in this space last week, the forced removal of disgraced ex-judge Michael Feinberg for siphoning excess fees from the Brooklyn Surrogate's Court has set off a hot contest for the seat in this fall's primary. Tribal loyalties in the race for mayor could determine the winner. The best-known candidate, Civil Court Judge Margarita Lopez-Torres, will get a boost from the candidacy of Fernando Ferrer because his bid to become New York's first Puerto Rican mayor will raise turnout among Brooklyn's Latino voters. Another contender for surrogate, Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Diana Johnson, who is African-American, could get a similar lift from the fact that the most fiercely contested Council races in Kings County are going on in the overwhelmingly black neighborhoods of central Brooklyn. In Brownsville, for instance, the Campaign Finance Board reports 12 challengers vying for the seat being vacated by term-limited Tracy Boyland - all of whom will be trying to get voters to the polls.

A BIPARTISAN DEAL TO CREATE 21 NEW JUDGESHIPS

New York Civic (www.nycivic.org)
Q (Quotidien) No. 62
Tuesday, July 5, 2005
by Henry Stern

A BIPARTISAN DEAL TO CREATE 21 NEW JUDGESHIPS

The Daily News editorial, LET THE VOTERS CHOOSE THE JUDGES, denounces the sweetheart deal between the major parties this year that lets the Democratic party bosses choose the next surrogate, without the primary election that the law normally requires. The News suggests that Clarence Norman, the Brooklyn county leader, names a 69-year-old to the position, who would have to retire at the end of 2006. That way the people would have an opportunity to select his successor.

An excellent idea, BUT if the legislators had wanted to give the people a chance to elect a judge, they would not have selected August 1 as the effective date for the new law.. August 1 is within the window of opportunity for the Brooklyn gang, too late for petitions to be circulated by candidates for election, but early enough for Norman & Co. to select a catspaw for the Democratic nomination for the new position of second Surrogate for Kings County. The gig is for fourteen years, at $136,700 per annum, plus staff, benefits and other emoluments.


PLACE NOT YOUR TRUST IN PRINCES
--

PARTICULARLY THOSE WHO SUP WITH THE BROOKLYN MACHINE

Since we have cited editorials from the Post and the News, it is fair that we quote from an editorial from the New York Times that is relevant nine years after it was published, on Thursday, September 6, 1996, just four days before the botched Democratic primary election on Monday, September 10. BTW, the election was so poorly managed, the courts ordered the polls reopened on October 10 for those who were unable to vote because voting machines failed to arrive at polling places. Now, we proceed to the Times' advice to Brooklynites.

"The Brooklyn Surrogate's Court has long put the needs of politicians before those of the public. All four candidates vow to clean up the place. But only State Supreme Court Justice MICHAEL FEINBERG has strong credentials.

"Justice Feinberg has promised reforms ranging from a panel to screen appointments and recommend changes in how the place is run, down to keeping the office open at lunchtime as a convenience to the public. But his ardent backing by the Democratic county organization, which wants to retain its patronage jobs and fees, is DISQUIETING. With some WARINESS we endorse Judge Feinberg on the basis of his good record, and TRUST that he will STAY TRUE to his reform pledges." (We added the emphasis.)


ALL THAT GLITTERS -- FEINBERG'S PRINCIPAL OPPONENT

To be fair to the Times, we must report that Judge Feinberg's principal opponent in the 1996 primary was Judge Lila Gold, then on the Civil Court. When she ran for Supreme Court in 2003, having made her peace with the county organization, The Village Voice mocked her in an article headlined: THE JUDGE IN THE PURPLE PLASTIC GLOVES: Clarence Norman's Latest Pick for Supreme Court.

We quote from Tom Robbins' Voice article:

"'She is my nightmare of a judge,' said a fellow jurist who has observed her in action and listened to complaints from both defense lawyers and prosecutors. 'To say she is harsh doesn't even begin to describe it. She will put defendants in jail for failing to pay as little as $15 of the mandatory surcharges imposed on those convicted.'

"Gold also has disconcerted both defendants and attorneys with her predilection for wearing colored plastic, dishwashing-style gloves while administering justice on the bench. She has explained to colleagues that she has a skin condition. But the condition only affects her in the courtroom; when she attends political dinners and functions, she doesn't wear them.

"In 1998, Jack Newfield and Maggie Haberman, writing in the New York Post, included Gold on a list of the city's worst judges, citing her 'irritability, nastiness and irrational outbursts' in court."

NY Civic recommends that you link to Robbins' absorbing column. He explores additional areas of Gold's alleged deficiencies, including her fund raising activities, and describes civil litigation in which she was a defendant. Robbins' article is a guided tour of a portion of the sewer that is Brooklyn judicial politics.

End of Quotes. Fast Forward to 2005.

Justice Michael Feinberg was ordered removed from office by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct on February 15, 2005. Their decision was unanimously upheld by the Court of Appeals on June 29. You can link to the decisions, so we need not repeat the sad story of his numerous derelictions.

A key phrase in the Court of Appeals opinion: Judge Feinberg "debased his office and eroded public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary."

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

TOP BROOKLYN LEGAL EAGLE CAGED FOR BRIBERY

New York Post

By ZACH HABERMAN
July 6, 2005 -- The corrupt former head of the Brooklyn Bar Association yesterday was sentenced to more than two years in prison.
"In the twilight of my career, I threw it all away," said Edward Reich, who pleaded guilty to accepting more than $10,000 in kickbacks. Watched by his tearful family, he admitted he was "wrong legally, ethically and morally."

Brooklyn federal court Judge John Gleeson called Reich's pocket-padding an abuse of power and a "corruption of the judicial process" before sentencing the once-prominent lawyer to 27 months in a federal prison.

Reich admitted accepting $10,500 in bribes on five different occasions in exchange for lowering foreclosure prices on properties he presided over at auction as a referee.

"I never intended to harm anyone," Reich said. "My actions are reprehensible."

Gleeson also ordered the former head of a judicial screening committee to pay a $75,000 fine as well as restitution for the bribe money he accepted. Reich also will be disbarred and have his law office closed.

He has to turn himself over to prison officials Oct. 17.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Let the voters choose the judges

New York Daily News July 5, 2005
EDITORIAL

The Court of Appeals last week booted Michael Feinberg, a Brooklyn Democratic scoundrel, from his post as the borough's surrogate judge for letting a lawyer pal siphon millions of dollars from the estates of the dead. Ah, sweet, slow justice.
The Daily News exposed Feinberg three years ago. It is satisfying that the high court has unanimously found him unfit for the bench. Now the issue arises: Who will fill Feinberg's place, as well as a second Brooklyn surrogate position just created by Gov. Pataki and the Legislature in an odious back-room deal?

Political parties use surrogate's court as a patronage trough because its judges get to appoint numerous lawyers, guardians and other estate specialists to paying positions. The Brooklyn organization is poised to keep the borough's two posts in the family.

Feinberg's spot will be filled by a primary this fall, but candidates have until only July 14 to collect signatures to get on the ballot. The party apparatus can get the job done for its favored candidate. Chairman Clarence Norman must not sabotage everyone else by challenging their petitions. The contest should be open to all comers.

Norman, who's facing trial on corruption charges, will get to handpick the second Brooklyn surrogate, thanks to Pataki, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno. In the final minutes of the just-ended legislative session, they created 21 judgeships, delivering three into the hands of party bosses.

Those spots, one controlled by Norman, one by Bruno, who doubles as the Republican strongman in upstate Rensselaer, and one in Orange County's Family Court, should have been filled by the voters. But the capital's big three headed off that inconvenience by establishing the judgeships as of Aug. 1, when the Election Law says it's too late to organize a primary. In that event, the bosses rule.

And that's not all. When Albany creates judgeships, everyone grabs for a piece of the pie. This time around, Pataki got the okay to appoint 14 new Court of Claims judges, which is the regular practice, while party organizations in the Bronx, Queens and Westchester will pick four candidates for November judicial elections.

The biggest offense committed by the Albany trio was to deny primary voters a say over the new surrogate, who will serve 14 years, at a time when Chief Judge Judith Kaye is trying to promote confidence in judicial elections. Would-be surrogates with honor will run in the primary for the Feinberg seat. Brooklyn Assemblyman Joe Lentol, who is the party's likely choice for the unelected surrogate post, should be among them rather than tarnish his three decades of public service.

As for the tainted seat, Norman's only legitimate move would be to install someone who is 69 years old and who will have to retire next year, allowing then for a real open primary

Monday, July 04, 2005

Surrogate's Court And Why It Should Go

Gotham Gazette - (www.gothamgazette.com)
July 4, 2005

Surrogate's Court And Why It Should Go
by Gary Tilzer


Last week, Brooklyn Surrogate's Court Judge Michael Feinberg was removed from the bench because he committed misconduct by improperly awarding nearly $9 million in fees to attorney Louis R. Rosenthal, his long-time friend. The fees in question were taken from the estates of Brooklyn's dead, their widows and orphans.

In a unanimous decision, the state's highest court upheld Feinberg's ouster by the Commission on Judicial Conduct and ruled that his actions "debased his office and eroded public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary."

Feinberg never denied he gave the money to his friend -- in fact he freely admits he did -- but said the payments were justified and in keeping with long-time practice in Brooklyn Surrogate's Court.

Surrogate Feinberg was among a small group of judges, lawyers and politicians who make their living from a court that for over 100 years has been at the center of judicial, legal and political corruption in New York City. Yet it has survived many attempts to eliminate it.

If anything, today's politicians are more shameless than ever. On June 24, the entire New York State government acted to ensure that the Brooklyn Surrogate's Court will continue to benefit politicians and politically connected lawyers. In the middle of the night, both houses of the legislature passed a bill to create 21 new judgeships throughout the state -- including a second Surrogate's Court judge in Brooklyn. The bill was submitted by Governor George Pataki and passed later the same day -- without any hearings or public discussion. Since the law will take effect August 1, after the filing date for the September primary, Brooklyn's political leaders -- the very same people who selected Feinberg -- will get to choose another judge.

This latest episode and the disclosure of Feinberg's abuses should serve as an impetus finally to eliminate the court that Senator Robert Kennedy called "a political toll booth exacting tribute from widows and orphans." Once informally known as "the widows and orphans court," the Surrogate's Court handles estates from people who die without a proper will. In doing this, it funnels millions of dollars a year to lawyers who serve as guardians.

The prospect of appointing lucrative guardianships has motivated generation after generation of machine politicians and establishment lawyers to capture a Surrogate spot for one of their trusted judges, who then spreads the largesse among the party faithful. Often the fees they charge eat up substantial assets. For example, reclusive tobacco heiress Doris Duke, who died in 1993, wanted her estate of $1.2 billion to go toward the improvement of humanity. But a dispute over the estate in Manhattan Surrogate's Court became what one lawyer called the "world series of litigation," with big name law firms vying for a piece of the pie.

The political establishment and media seem to have lost past generations' moral outrage at the corruption there. Even the well-informed tend to see Surrogate Feinberg's misconduct and other similar incidents as isolated problems. This year three candidates are vying for a rare open seat on Manhattan Surrogate's Court, but the campaign has not featured any debate over the way the court works.


A CULTURE OF PATRONAGE AND SYSTEMIC CORRUPTION

Earlier this year, political consultant Norman Adler told the New York Observer that politicians cherish the court for "the same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks: That's where the money is."

And the well-connected ones get it. "The courts are so political that almost nothing is decided purely on the merits," wrote the late journalist Jack Newfield in 2001, one of the few consistently outraged critics of the court.

The examples establish a clear pattern.

The Commission on Judicial Conduct found that the attorney-friend appointed by Surrogate Feinberg was so entrenched that he prepared the Surrogate's decisions on fees awarded to attorneys in the form of Post-it notes.

Between 1997 and 2001, according to Newfield, the law firm of Queens Democratic Party leader Tom Manton received more than $400,000 in court patronage.

In 1987 a government investigation accused the Public Administrator for Manhattan Surrogate Renee Roth of using the court as a racketeering enterprise. The administrator resigned after he was accused of stealing $1 million from three clients. And a 1998 bar association report found that about two-thirds of Roth's guardianship appointments went to campaign contributors or to lawyers who worked for firms that contributed.

Some of the abuses have been even more blatant. In 1987, Surrogate's Court investigators were captured on videotape stealing valuables from the apartments of the deceased; they had been hired to inventory the property.

The state regulates all aspects of Surrogate's Court -- except the public administrator that every Surrogate's Court judge appoints, who is under the city's purview. This dual control has provided a convenient way out for auditors. In 2002, the Daily News reported that, during his eight-year tenure, State Comptroller Carl McCall never audited the Brooklyn Surrogate's Court's Public Administrator. McCall's office insisted he never took a look because then-city Comptroller Alan Hevesi was already auditing the Brooklyn court. Hevesi did -- but never discovered that Judge Michael Feinberg was awarding excessive fees without proper documentation to his friend Louis Rosenthal.

The problems with Surrogate's Court go beyond individual instances of corruption; they are systemic.


UNNECESSARY AND INVULNERABLE

There is absolutely no reason to maintain a separate Surrogate's Court. Under the New York State Constitution, the State Supreme Court already shares jurisdiction on anything the Surrogate's Court might handle -- estates, appointments of guardians and conservators, and adoptions. And so, abolishing the Surrogate would not leave a sudden void in our judicial system.

In Supreme Court and Family Court, cases are randomly assigned to a stable of judges. But there is only one Surrogate each for Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx. Manhattan has two, and now so will Brooklyn. Putting the management of millions of dollars in assets under the purview of just one or two judges creates a recipe for patronage and corruption. Abolishing the court, and dispersing its functions and cases among the many Supreme Court and Family Court judges in each county would go a long way toward breaking up the patronage mill. But because of the big money involved and the powerful people who benefit from the court, every attempt to abolish or reform it in the past has ended in failure.


EFFORTS TO ELIMINATE THE COURT

In the 1930s, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia called Surrogate's Court "the most expensive undertaking establishment in the world." He believed it was control of the Surrogate's Court of New York County, more than any other factor, that kept the Tammany Hall political machine alive through the lean years when he deprived it of city jobs and President Franklin Roosevelt denied it federal jobs.

In 1938, the New York Bar Association called for the merger of the Surrogate's Court and the Supreme Court to eliminate corruption. In 1948, the Americans for Democratic Action called for a legislative campaign to reduce the patronage in the Surrogate Court. In the 1950s a commission put together to end the abuses of Tammany Hall urged the elimination of the Surrogate's Court by merging its functions with the Supreme Court. These recommendations came to naught.

The movement to abolish the court reached its peak in the 1960s. Citizens Union urged the system of appointing special guardians be abolished and replaced by a staff of salaried public officials who could act for minors, widows and incompetents. Robert Kennedy endorsed this idea, saying the salaried public guardians "would eliminate patronage from the Surrogate's Courts and dry up a major source of sustenance for the worst elements in our political parties." But, almost as soon as Kennedy made the proposal, representatives of the bar association and many of the city's Surrogate judges attacked it. And the senior Manhattan surrogate at the time, Samuel DiFalco, who had been elected with the help of the Manhattan Democratic machine, blocked reforms.

Ironically, calls for the elimination of the Surrogate's Court disappeared as reformers assumed power in the city. In 1977, Edward Koch ran for mayor, attacking the Democratic machine. Soon after his election, though, Koch did what most reform politicians do after defeating a machine: make a deal with it. Though Koch set up panels to screen candidates for judgeships, presumably based on merit, as time went on, the erstwhile reformers became more and more dependent on contributions and support from the machine politicians and the law firms that benefit from Surrogate patronage. Since then, Koch himself – along with other prominent politicians, including former Governor Mario Cuomo -- has been the beneficiary of the Surrogate's Court. Koch, for example, received $77,000 for a guardianship in 2001 and 2002, according to the New York Observer. "I'm on the list of people who are qualified," Koch told the Observer. "They're very careful to prevent [the court] from being used as a trough."

Today, every candidate who runs for Surrogate pledges to make "reforms" and end the court's patronage. Once elected, they do nothing. This is so widespread that it hardly even counts as irony that a New York Times editorial in 1996 endorsed the now-fired Surrogate Feinberg with the words: "Justice Feinberg has promised reforms ranging from a panel to screen appointments and recommend changes in how the place is run, down to keeping the office open at lunchtime as a convenience to the public."


THE BROOKLYN COURT

With Feinberg's removal, people interested in running for his seat will have two weeks to try to collect the 4,000 signatures to get on the ballot. If two or more candidates qualify as Democratic candidates, there would be a primary contest for Feinberg's seat.

But this would not be the case for the second Surrogate's post the state government created last month. Even veteran political observers were astounded by the addition of a second Surrogate's Court in Brooklyn in the middle of the removal process for the current Surrogate -- without giving citizens the right to vote in a primary.

That's right, there will be no primary for the new position. Albany in effect gave Brooklyn Democratic leader Clarence Norman a big role in picking who will select the new Surrogate for that borough. Norman awaits trial for extorting money from past judicial candidates and supported Feinberg for Surrogate's Court in 1998. And whomever Norman and his cronies choose is virtually guaranteed to win the November general election, and serve 14 years before they have to run again.

The only chance of derailing this seems to lie in Washington. Because Brooklyn comes under the federal voting rights act, the plan for a second Surrogate's judge might need Justice Department approval.

Ten years before Feinberg's removal, the same State Commission on Judicial Conduct that removed him censured his predecessor, Bernard Bloom. Bloom's censure was one step short of removal. Then the political machine that picked Bloom selected Feinberg. Now that very same machine that chose the two discredited judges is likely to select at least one—and perhaps two - more Surrogates.

In setting the stage for this, Albany once again has provided evidence that, in a legislature where almost every incumbent gets re-elected, there are no consequences for taking the low road. The government's action also sends the message that politics still trumps justice in New York.

Gary Tilzer is a political consultant whose articles have appeared in the New York Sun, the Village Voice and other local publications.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

ALBANY REPORT CARD

The New York Times - Editorial
July 3, 2005

ALBANY REPORT CARD
Last year, if you had asked us to assess New York State's legislative year, we would have found it hard to get beyond a sigh of disappointment. This year, mostly, we applaud. An impressive number of the 700 or so bills approved by the Legislature reflect a conscientious effort to reform the way Albany does business. Here is a closer look at what the legislators did and did not do.

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On the downside * * * at the last minute, legislators created a number of new judicial positions, many for patronage appointments. Among these was a judgeship in Brooklyn created just in time to miss the deadline for elections. Now Democratic party leaders will choose the judge - not a good idea, especially in Brooklyn.

Bill to Alter Court Is Assailed in Brooklyn

NEW YORK TIMES

Bill to Alter Court Is Assailed in Brooklyn
By JONATHAN P. HICKS
Published: July 3, 2005

In a legislative session dominated by talk of reform, lawmakers took one quiet step that has alarmed several New York City politicians: they created a second judge seat for the Surrogate's Court in Brooklyn that many officials fear could be a vehicle for patronage.

For the last few days elected officials and political candidates have condemned the bill to establish the additional seat in Surrogate's Court, calling it an unnecessary and politically motivated move.

Last month, the Legislature passed a bill that would establish a number of new judgeships throughout the state, among them are new positions in Queens and the second surrogate position in Brooklyn.

But the Brooklyn judgeship has been widely criticized, in part because, under the bill, the position would not be officially created until August, making it too late for candidates to collect petition signatures and run in the September primary. Instead, the executives of the political parties will select the candidates to appear on the ballot. In Brooklyn, which is overwhelmingly Democratic, selection by the Democratic Party would be tantamount to election.

"It's an outrage," said Arnold Kriss, a candidate for district attorney in Brooklyn and a former lawyer and former deputy commissioner of the New York Police Department.

"The Legislature and governor created another potential patronage headache in Brooklyn," Mr. Kriss said. "I don't see that there is any need for such a court. I don't remember any public cry, either in the law circles or in the public, to create a whole new position in the judiciary."

Some politicians said they objected strongly to the fact that Brooklyn voters could not vote on the position.

"I support judges being appointed and if that can't happen, they should be elected," said City Councilman David Yassky, a Democrat in Brooklyn who was formerly a professor at the Brooklyn Law School.

"I don't think judges should be appointed by party leaders," Mr. Yassky said. "There are different ways to select judges. But the worst is selection by party leaders." Mr. Yassky said that the Legislature improved its performance this year, citing its first on-time budget agreement in years. "But this was a real example of backsliding."

Once called the Widows and Orphans Court, the Surrogate's Court is familiar to those few voters who deal with estates and adoptions. But politicians know it as a last bastion of patronage, funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to lawyers who serve as guardians and conservators in thousands of estate cases.

The move to create a new surrogate position came a week before the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, upheld the removal of Judge Michael H. Feinberg, the surrogate judge in Brooklyn, for awarding $8.6 million in legal fees to a longtime friend to handle the legal matters of people who died with no wills.

Still, several Brooklyn legislators defended the creation of a second surrogate position, saying the city's most populous borough should have two such judgeships, particularly since there were two in Manhattan.

The bill to create the new judgeship has been widely viewed in Albany as a move to create a position for Assemblyman Joseph R. Lentol, a Democrat who has represented Greenpoint and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, since 1972. In an interview Friday, Mr. Lentol said he planned to be a candidate for the position and said that the creation of a second surrogate position in Brooklyn was a reasonable action by the Legislature.

"I think that is something that is needed because the caseload in Brooklyn requires the attention of two judges," Mr. Lentol said. "I think this will be a good thing for the people of Brooklyn."

Mr. Lentol said that he had no discussions with either leaders of the Brooklyn Democratic organization or the Assembly about creating the position. "This was something that was done by the leadership of the two houses of the Legislature and the governor. I was not involved."

Several legislators pointed out that the bill that was passed by the Legislature had created several positions beyond the surrogate judgeship in Brooklyn. And they added that there was no reason to object to the one position in Brooklyn when there were so many others throughout the state.

The bill, which Gov. George E. Pataki intends to sign, will create four positions on the State Supreme Court, 14 on the Court of Claims, an additional county court clerk in Rensselaer County and a Family Court judgeship in Orange County, in addition to the position in Brooklyn.

Nonetheless, there was still criticism of the Brooklyn surrogate position and its selection process.

"We believe that any system that deprives the voters of the choice is problematic, legally and democratically," said Jeremy Creelan, associate counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

Mr. Creelan, who was one of the authors of a report issued by the Brennan Center that criticized how the Legislature functions in Albany, said: "The voters should decide. And we're skeptical of any other mechanism that the Legislature would put into place."

Friday, July 01, 2005

Big Mess in B'klyn Court for Estates

Daily News July 1, 2005
BIG MESS IN B'KLYN COURT FOR ESTATES
By Nancie L. Katz
A DAY AFTER a powerful Brooklyn judge was booted for lining a pal's pockets with the money of the dead, a city report said the system the judge presided over was rife with sloppy bookkeeping.

City Controller Bill Thompson called the files on estates of people who died in Brooklyn without a will "disorganized collections of documentation."

He said the office of the Brooklyn Surrogate's Public Administrator Marietta Small also was "unable to demonstrate that the fees it charged estates for administrative expenses . . . were appropriate," according to an audit released yesterday.

A probe of 25 files during 2004 found such disarray that Small closed the books on one dead Brooklyn resident's estate without distributing 48 U.S. savings bonds. The bonds later showed up in an employee's desk drawer, the report said.

On Wednesday, the state Court of Appeals bounced Surrogate Judge Michael Feinberg, finding he approved nearly $9 million in fees to his pal - Louis Rosenthal, counsel for the public administrator - without ever asking for affidavits saying what he did to earn the money.

Feinberg said he didn't know he needed to get affidavits - an excuse scoffed at by the court.

The audit also faulted Small for allowing Rosenthal to charge substantial fees without ever filing the required affidavits.

Joan of Arc

Daily News July 1, 2005
by Earl Louis

Alums make & break law

Having graduated from Brooklyn Law School a month ago, I couldn't help noticing that Michael Feinberg, the former Kings County Surrogate judge who got kicked off the bench this week by unanimous vote of New York's highest state court, is a fellow alumnus.
All Brooklyn Law students have to take an ethics class called "professional responsibility," before graduating. Like any good law school - and Brooklyn is among the best - it teaches students the law and makes clear that the choice is ours: to uphold it or break it.

Feinberg chose the dark side, funneling $2 million in excess court fees - money drained from the estates of people who died without leaving a will - to an attorney, Louis Rosenthal, described by the Court of Appeals as Feinberg's "longtime friend and law school classmate."

Feinberg and Rosenthal remind me of another pair of Brooklyn Law alums who played starring roles in a city corruption scandal.

Stanley Friedman was a Democratic boss in the Bronx who ended up spending four years in prison for conspiracy and racketeering after paying bribes to steer a $21 million city contract to a firm y he headed. Another alum, former Queens Borough President Donald Manes, committed suicide after his role in the scheme came to light.

Joining those scoundrels on the alumni rolls is a much longer list of distinguished civic leaders. Former Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton graduated in the 1950s, as did former Rep. Herman Badillo, ex-Mayor David Dinkins, former Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward and current GOP mayoral candidate Tom Ognibene. Not to mention a slew of respected state and federal judges.

The school doesn't talk much about the alums who became crooks, which is a mistake. Chronicling their failed careers provides a sobering, cautionary tale for new lawyers.

Faith-based politics

Feinberg's expulsion has touched off a scramble to elect a replacement Surrogate's Court judge this fall. As is often true in Brooklyn, the path to power runs through First Baptist Church of Crown Heights, a 5,000-member congregation whose pastor is Clarence Norman Sr., the father of Assemblyman Clarence Norman Jr., the Brooklyn Democratic chairman.

The church's support - and Norman's - will likely go to Supreme Court Justice Diana Johnson, a longtime church member running for surrogate. Another Supreme Court judge in the race is Lawrence Knipel, the husband of District Leader Lori Knipel.

Meanwhile, most good-government types are lining up behind Margarita Lopez-Torres, who has run maverick races for Civil and Supreme Court against Norman's machine in recent years, and in the process turned into a kind of Joan of Arc of reform in the borough.

Originally published on July 1, 2005

Working too hard? Take a seat.

Albany Times Union - Friday, July 1, 2005
WORKING TOO HARD? TAKE A SEAT. (WE'LL EVEN CREATE ONE FOR YOU)

Friday, July 1, 2005

The hasty creation of a second Rensselaer County Court judgeship last week as the legislative session ended set jaws a-flapping across the river, where political conspiracy theories abound. The most popular hypothesis is that the post will serve as a rather transparent escape hatch for beleaguered county District Attorney Patricia DeAngelis.

DeAngelis, 36, is under fire for a series of criminal reversals that brought stinging slaps from the state Supreme Court Appellate Division. She also faces a lawsuit from an ex-colleague claiming breaches of ethical -- and possibly legal -- practices in the DA's office.

Chief among the gripes was DeAngelis' agreement to pay former employee Katrin Ellis, the niece of an ex-county chairman, $61,500 a year while she attended college across from the Troy courthouse.

A complaint listing this and other allegations will soon be filed by former Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Sober, 35, according to Sober's lawyer, Cheryl Coleman.

Thanks, but who asked you?

The judgeship bill, introduced at the request of Gov. George Pataki, includes new state Supreme Court posts in New York City, family court benches in Orange County, and a new surrogate's court job in Kings County.

There are also 14 new seats on the Court of Claims, which handles cases brought against the state. These judgeships, with their nine-year terms and $136,700 paychecks, are highly sought after. They're patronage plums because Court of Claims judges are appointed and don't ever have to run for election.

Pataki spokesman Kevin Quinn said the 21 new judgeships were created based on need. He said the state Office of Court Administration was consulted. Au contraire, says Inside Politics.

"OCA and the courts always welcome additional resources, although this was not requested by OCA," OCA spokesman David Bookstaver said.

The new spot on the Rensselaer County bench doesn't exist until Aug. 1 -- past the primary petitions deadline -- so political parties will nominate candidates to run in November.

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