Brooklyn Surrogate's Court 2005

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Wednesday, July 20, 2005

No More Debasing of the Surrogate's Court

Footnotes (

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.


Blogger truthbtold said...

Make no mistake about it. Norman is supporting Diana Johnson and is doing nothing to help Lawrence Knipel. If Norman was for Knipel, then why put Johnson in the race. Norman could have just had Knipel in against Lopez-Torres, where Lopez would get crushed. With a 45% or so African-American turnout in the race, and Norman backing her, she has a leg up. Meanwhile, the politics as usual folks are working feverishly to get Johnson in.

Lopez-Torres is an affable lady but has been routinely criticized by the appeals courts for bizarre rulings for example... granting custody to the father of a child where the child testified that the father burned cigarettes into her part of her ruling Lopez-Torres said the burn didn't look too bad. The appeals court was so offended that they sent the case back to the lower court with specefic instructions to keep the case away from Lopez-Torres.

She also has been reversed by the appellate courts more than 60% of the time where the state average for reversal is about 22%.

It is one thing to face up against the political machine..and I applaud that, but you can't skimp in a court that deals with widows and orphans. You need the best qualified. Look at Knipel's superb record as being the go-to guy when administrative judges have problems in the court, they give it to Knipel to reform. Don't let the fact that his wife is a district leader (by the way, a reform district leader who defeated the Mel Miller party regulars about 13 years ago) held against his unblemished accomplishments that even his opponents agree to. In fact, Knipel got 40% of the vote in a recent CBID (reform/against the machine club) meeting where even Lopez-Torres supporters admit he is a great judge.

And another thing..Norman and the machine are supporting John Sampson for District Attorney...everybody knows it although there is no official endoresement since that would be the kiss of death since Norman is facing criminal charges...he is doing the same thing with Johnson.

8:18 PM  
Blogger blogger1 said...

While it is easy, and perhaps more sensationalist, to accuse someone of lacking judicial independence because of the political friendships of their spouse, it would make for a much more balanced article (albeit a duller one) if that person’s record was actually evaluated on its own merits. The fact is that Justice Knipel has been a judge for 15 years and he has consistently delivered fair rulings. Knipel has done his job effectively and has won the respect of attorneys on both sides of the isle. While the author would like to have the reader believe that Judge Knipel holds a telephone conference with Mr. Norman and his wife prior to rendering verdicts, the reality is that he judges cases based on their merits and on the law. He has judged fairly, now we must judge him fairly. I do not pretend to know who is the best candidate for this important yet often abused position, but distorted facts certainly do not help the situation. Here are the facts: Judge Knipel is honest, efficient, and most importantly independent.
Sorry, I was so annoyed by this post that I made an account. I mean, it's just not right to distort infgormation like this. Go on his record, not his wife's. While I'm sure she is a loveley lady, she is not running, he is.

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