Brooklyn Surrogate's Court 2005

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Sunday, July 03, 2005

Bill to Alter Court Is Assailed in Brooklyn


Bill to Alter Court Is Assailed in Brooklyn
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."


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