Dispelling the Past Image of the Surrogate's Court
Judge Rita Mella is running a campaign for Surrogate's Court based on love. "People ask me all the time, 'Why are you doing this?'" Mella said in a recent interview. "I tell them, because I fell in love with this court and I found it so interesting and intellectually challenging and I really enjoy the work." Mella got her feet wet in Brooklyn's Surrogate Court as the principal law clerk for Judge Margarita Lopez Torres. She helped the then-new surrogate manage the court and also implemented measures to increase the efficiency and transparency of the court system there, something she hopes to do in Manhattan. "I believe we can improve this court. I believe we can increase access to justice and make it less suspicious to people," Mella said. She wants to dispel the vision of the Surrogate's Court as the bastion for the wealthy or a place where only complex, high-profile cases are resolved. Achieving that goal will depend on how the court is managed and presented to the public, she said. "The management of the court is important because the surrogate judge will decide the substantive matters, and is the administrative judge of the courts," Mella said. "This is a court where most matters are decided administratively. Last year in the Manhattan Surrogate's Court there were 10,100 proceedings filed. There were only 12 hearings or trials. That's why it is so important to have a judge in there that has had the experience working in this court." She also cited the fact that with a huge caseload and only two judges, the new judge will be expected to learn the job quickly. "Unlike other courts where there are 20 judges or 25 judges or even 15 judges ? in this court, the first day of the new judge is another day in the life of the court, and you have to hit the ground running," she said. Mella is hoping to implement some new practices at the court if she is elected. Though the Manhattan court has avoided corruption scandals like those that have tarnished other counties, she says that "does not mean that the court could not use some new ideas." Some of those ideas include creating a website for the Public Administrator's Office, the agency that the court appoints to administer estates when a person dies without a will, so that the public can be kept abreast of how the office functions and the fees it receives. She would also post more public information about the court online, like case dockets and other court business. She would also look to increase the diversity of the court's staff and the people who work with the court by reaching out to educate populations who might be intimidated by the court's reputation. "One of the biggest challenges of this court is the way people perceive it," Mella said. "Everybody thinks of the Surrogate's Court as a very exclusive club, as a very elitist institution, as a secret place to which not many people have access. I believe that this perception discourages members of the public as well as attorneys-it discourages participation by a broader range of the population and the bar." Mella was elected to civil court in 2006 and serves as a criminal court judge in Manhattan. She also teaches administrative law at CUNY Law School, where she got her degree in 1991. She was born in the Dominican Republic and immigrated to the United States when she was 22. Mella is a member of numerous professional and bar associations, including the National Association of Women Judges, the Association of Judges of Hispanic Heritage and the Judicial Friends.
(http://nypress.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Jaffe.Portrait.jpg)With an Eye Toward Compassion and Entrepreneurship
Judge Barbara Jaffe didn't always envision herself in black robes sitting on the bench. She began her career as an administrator for a wholesale arts and antiques company for almost eight years. But even though she found her true passion in the law, she still cites her business background and arts expertise as unique qualities that would be a great boon to a Surrogate's Court judge. "I sat in the auctions, I bought and sold goods, I took care of the paperwork, I paid the bills, I invoiced customers, I paid employees," she said of her time in the arts world. "I didn't really like it, so I went to law school and I never looked back, but I know how to manage. Those management skills and entrepreneurial skills that I obtained in the business will help me in looking at the issues in the Surrogate's Court." She also has seen her fair share of art appraisals and knows her way around an expensive painting, something that could come in handy for a court that is often tasked with placing a value on pricey collections. Jaffe has been a judge for the past 10 years, after serving as an attorney and law clerk, and she's currently on the state Supreme Court hearing matrimonial cases. She often hears extremely emotional cases, dealing with divorce, division of assets and child custody, experience that she hopes will translate well to dealing with surrogate cases where there is often the fraught element of a deceased family member to contend with in addition to legal issues. "It's a terrible thing to divorce; it's a terrible thing to lose a loved one, and so being in court is not optimal emotionally," said Jaffe. "In Surrogate's Court, you have siblings, cousins, whatever, who fight, and it really does break my heart. I really want to see to it that those cases are resolved as quickly as possible so that people can put these problems behind them." Compassion and openness are important elements of what makes the Surrogate's Court successful, Jaffe said. "It's got to be made comfortable for everybody, including nontraditional families who have not always received a welcome embrace. You never stop educating staff about sensitivity to all kinds of people-from nontraditional families, from non-English-speaking communities," she said. "Surrogate's Court is now more than ever dealing with self-represented litigants who don't know about the system, and it's a fairly complex procedure in the Surrogate's Court." Jaffe produced a legal handbook for the criminal court that has been translated into Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Russian and French and distributed around the state, and she plans to do the same for Surrogate's Court. Jaffe also prides herself on being highly productive. "Motions don't languish with me," she said. "I have decided thousands of motions in serious civil matters, in hotly contested civil cases involving a lot of money, and I've been reversed only once. That bears out that I'm not only swift, but I am careful." While she hasn't worked in the Surrogate's Court, Jaffe said that her experience as a judge in similar situations-dealing with emotionally charged cases or high-value assets-gives her the right qualifications. "I already have judicial experience taking care of these matters. Not just experience as an attorney or a court employee, but real judicial experience, which I don't think you can substitute anything for," Jaffe said. Jaffe is currently the co-chair of the Committee on Professional Ethics and Discipline for the New York Women's Bar Association. She also serves on the Committee on the Supreme Court, the Pro Bono Committee and the Committee on LGBT Issues for the New York County Lawyers' Association.
MUST READ NEWS
Sign up to get our newsletter emailed to you every week!
- Enter your email address in the box below.
- Select the newsletters you would like to subscribe to.
- Click the 'SUBSCRIBE' button.