NYC Surrogate’s Court is broken, it should be fixed or abolished

New York City Councilman Fernando Cabrera.
New York City Councilman Fernando Cabrera.
John McCarten/NYC Council
New York City Councilman Fernando Cabrera.

NYC Surrogate’s Court is broken, it should be fixed or abolished

The Public Administrator’s office is part of political patronage in the judicial system.
October 31, 2019

Earlier this week, Crain’s broke a story that Fernando Cabrera, a Bronx city councilman running against Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, bought an apartment last year for just $55,000 and is now listing it for $140,000. Cabrera secured the bargain thanks to the Bronx Public Administrator, the office charged with handling the assets of those who die without wills.

New Yorkers who don’t have the misfortune of reckoning with the estate of a loved one know little about the Public Administrator’s office and Surrogate’s Court, where these matters are settled.

And even those who have encountered the institutions before may not know that Democratic Party politics can determine how assets are doled out, especially in boroughs with strong machines - the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn.

The Public Administrator’s office is, as its name describes, a public agency. Each borough has one. But while other city agencies are (relatively) free of obvious partisan politics—civil service reforms instituted decades ago ensure the bureaucrats working there are not directly tied to a politician or political machine—the Public Administrator’s office is not. Under state law, Mayor Bill de Blasio does not appoint the heads of each Public Administrator’s office, like he would for the Department of Transportation or Department of Finance.

Instead, the Surrogate’s judge appoints the public administrator, who is paid through taxpayer money. Each borough has one judge, except for Brooklyn and Manhattan, which have two. All of them are Democrats elected to 14-year terms. Almost of all of them enjoy very close relationships with the local Democratic Party organizations. Those with political connections can earn substantial income administering the estates, some worth millions of dollars, of New Yorkers who die without a will.

Matilde Sanchez, the Bronx public administrator, earned $217,000 in 2019. Her counsel, like all counsels to the public administrator, is chosen by the Surrogate's Judge. This gives the judge, typically a machine ally, a unique power: the ability to decide both the head of a city agency and the chief lawyer who goes to court. Politically-connected lawyers, as has been reported extensively over the years, are more likely to handle estates in Surrogate’s Court.

For probate lawyers looking to boost their incomes, the most prized post is the counsel to the public administrator. Sanchez herself has been a donor to the Bronx Democrats and her deputy, Virna Crespo, is the wife of the chairman of the Bronx Democratic Party, Assemblyman Marcos Crespo. The counsel, Hugh Campbell, has donated to Bronx politicians like Carl Heastie, the Assembly speaker and former county leader, and Vanessa Gibson. In 2010, the Bronx Democratic Party gave Campbell their “Service Award.”

In Queens, the public administrator is Lois Rosenblatt, who was a longtime Democratic Party election lawyer. The Queens Surrogate's Judge appointed her counsel, Gerard Sweeney. Sweeny, who was the law partner to the former county leader Tom Manton, can earn millions of dollars a year in Surrogate’s Court. He remains a power broker in the Queens Democratic Party and was their primary lawyer in a court battle this summer over the Queens district attorney’s race. The Surrogate’s judge, Peter Kelly, is also party player: his sister used to be the chief of staff to Joe Crowley, the Queens Democratic boss who lost his congressional reelection race to Ocasio-Cortez.

 

Brooklyn has its own checkered history with Surrogate’s Court. An employee of the Public Administrator’s office once stole $78,000 from eight estates. A Brooklyn Surrogate judge was booted from the court for corrupt practices in 2005. Another Brooklyn Surrogate, Frank Seddio, who now chairs the Brooklyn Democratic Party, resigned in 2007 over allegations that he misused campaign funds.

While the decline of party machines in New York City has meant a city government largely free of the mass political patronage that was once common during the Tammany Hall era, Surrogate’s Court has changed surprisingly little over the last half century. There are reforms that could be enacted but would require changing state law.

One of the judges in Brooklyn’s Surrogate’s Court, Margarita Lopez-Torres, has urged state lawmakers to actually take away her power to appoint the public administrator and give it to the mayor. Taking politics out of the Surrogate’s judge post entirely could help as well: the state could make the position a mayoral appointee, like a criminal and family court judge, and end the practice of subjecting these judges to typically noncompetitive, party-controlled elections.

On the more radical end, reformers have called for Surrogate’s Court to be abolished entirely, its functions merged with the State Supreme Court. Though unlikely, this move would help consolidate New York’s byzantine court system, one of the most convoluted in America.

Lawmakers of both parties, as well as Gov. Andrew Cuomo, have rarely showed interest in any kind of judicial reform. If politicians have no interest in even mildly reforming the court, best to end it altogether and deprive the friends of the political machines their lucre.

Correction: This article originally misstated how counsels to the public administrator are chosen. 

Ross Barkan
is a writer, journalist, and former State Senate candidate
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