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Brooklyn judicial candidates debate the issues

June 20, 2019 Jeffery Harrell
The primary is coming up on June 25.

In a low-information primary where most Brooklynites don’t know much about the candidates, the contenders are leaning heavily on name recognition and insinuations of malfeasance.

Voters had a rare opportunity at a June 12 public forum to learn about the philosophies of candidates facing off in a Democratic primary next week for three lesser known Brooklyn judgeships.

The June 25 primary will elect the Democratic nominee for Surrogate’s Court, the sixth municipal district court, and Kings County civil court. Because of Brooklyn’s Democratic base, the winner of the primary is expected to take the seat, and may even run unopposed in the general election.

Candidates for Surrogate’s Court, the most contentious of the three primaries, faced off over the corruption that has plagued the office in the past.

Related: Why surrogate judges matter: A voter’s primer

Surrogate’s Court handles wills, and its judge is responsible for appointing a public administrator to oversee the transfer of wealth from one generation to the next. Millions of dollars flow through the office — and in the past, judges have used the position to pilfer money from Brooklyn’s bereaved.

Given this history of corruption, having deep ties to the Brooklyn political machine could be seen as a liability.

Judge Margarita López Torres, who is defending her seat, stressed that she alienated party leaders during her tenure by refusing to hire lawyers recommended by Vito Lopez, former chair of the Kings County Democratic party.

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After years of battling with the party, however, she’s back in favor with the support of party leader Frank Seddio and a long list of other public officials.

She also expressed her commitment to ending the practice of judges appointing public administrators, and stressed the impossibility of proper oversight.

“A judge should not appoint the very litigant that will come before them in court,” said López Torres. “The office of the public administrator is run by the city. I cannot have eyes on everything they do.”

Her opponents disagreed. Meredith Jones said that there is no excuse for weak oversight, especially given the history of corruption in the Surrogate’s Court.

“If you’re not ready to steward that office, why even take the job?” Jones said.

Related: Estate lawyers flood Surrogate’s Court race with campaign contributions

Jones also touted her years of experience as a lawyer in Surrogate’s Court and her commitment to protect black family’s generational wealth from deed theft.

Elena Baron, also vying for the surrogate’s seat, paints herself as the outsider candidate. She sees her opponent’s connections to Brooklyn’s machine politics as a weakness, and a source of potential corruption.

“The Surrogate’s Court judge is a safeguard of generational wealth,” Baron said, “It’s very important to be independent of politics.”

In the Civil Court’s Sixth District, where the judge is elected by residents of Park Slope, Flatbush and parts of Crown Heights, four candidates sought to differentiate themselves.

Tehilah Berman told voters that her campaign was self-funded, guaranteeing her judicial independence. She also noted that she has “never faced an ethical dilemma” in her career as a lawyer because she is “so committed to acting ethically.”

Caroline Cohen, a civil rights and former immigration lawyer, explained that for a judge to properly interpret the law, connection to local issues and involvement in the community were crucial.

“Whether that means joining civil associations or showing up at a protest, that’s what I’ll do as a judge.”

Chinyelu Udoh stressed her experience in a wide variety of courts, since municipal judges are often placed in a wide range of courts from criminal to housing court. Udoh bragged she has worked in “every court jurisdiction in New York” and would need no on-the-job training.

Alice Nicholson leaned on her 30 years of experience and said she would make “each number into a face” if elected judge.

The two candidates facing off for the countywide Civil Court position agreed on the need for bail and marijuana reform.

D. Bernadette Neckles, an immigrant from Grenada, talked about the need to balance the letter of the law with community needs. She noted that as a judge, her duty would be to upholding the law first and foremost.

Her opponent Ed King drew a distinction.

“People should be treated differently based on certain factors,” said King, citing the example of treating drug dealers more harshly than users. “A judge needs to know when to offer an empathetic hand, and when to use a firm fist.”

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