Brooklyn Boro

Estate lawyers flood Surrogate’s Court race with campaign contributions

June 20, 2019 Noah Goldberg

In the Brooklyn race for Surrogate’s Court judge, two of the three candidates have raked in contributions from estate lawyers whose business is handled in the court.

While the primary to replace or re-elect current judge Margarita López Torres is by no means a big-money race compared to others, such as the the Queens DA race, a Brooklyn Eagle review of pre-primary reports filed with the state’s Board of Elections shows that both incumbent López Torres and candidate Meredith Jones have taken in at least 35 percent of their donations from estate lawyers.

From left: Margarita López Torres, Meredith Jones, Elena Barron. Photos by Rob Abruzzese (left, right); courtesy of Meredith Jones (center)
From left: Margarita López Torres, Meredith Jones, Elena Barron. Photos by Rob Abruzzese (left, right); courtesy of Meredith Jones (center)

Surrogate’s Court is where the estates of the dead are handled, including any debates over wills. Estate lawyers represent family members in the Surrogate’s Court and argue their cases before the surrogate judge.

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

Donations from lawyers who have business before the court are not unique to Surrogate’s Court — in races for Civil Court too, local lawyers are big donors, and District Attorneys across New York have come under fire for taking donations from defense attorneys with cases before them.

“Lawyers and law firms — which have business before the courts — are normally donors to political campaigns. But what this does show is that we need to be looking at how we fund campaigns and who funds our civil courts,” said Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause New York, a good government group.

Lerner noted that Surrogate’s Courts in New York City have been the center of corruption for decades. In 2005, Brooklyn’s Surrogate Michael Feinberg was kicked off the court after it was revealed that he appointed his law school friend to run the Public Administrator’s Office, and then “improperly awarded” that man millions of dollars, according to a New York Times article at the time.

López Torres, who has been one of the two surrogates in Brooklyn since her insurgent election in 2005, has taken in at least $18,300 from estate lawyers and law firms. That makes up 43 percent of her $42,471 total contributions. Jones raised a more modest sum of at least $3,400 from estate lawyers — but out of her contribution total of $9,400, that’s 35 percent.

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The third candidate in the race, Civil Court Judge Elena Baron, did not take in any money from estate lawyers, a review of her campaign filings showed. Baron was the only one of the three candidates rated as “not approved” to run Brooklyn’s Surrogate’s Court by the New York City Bar Association and the Brooklyn Bar Association because she declined to participate in their rating.

“Baron’s extensive experience in civil matters that come before the court is independent of the Surrogate’s Court, political machines and the lawyers that practice before the surrogate court,” said Gary Tilzer, who is running Baron’s campaign.

Some estate lawyers donated to both López Torres and Jones. Brooklyn estate lawyer Michael Kaplan gave $250 to López Torres and $200 to Jones, while another estate lawyer, Ira Kopito, who used to be associate counsel to the public administrator, gave $250 to both.

Both López Torres and Jones say they do not know who their campaign donors are, citing a rule that bars judicial candidates from ascertaining the identities of contributors.

A judicial candidate may attend his/her own fund-raising event and may actually see and acknowledge individuals in attendance, but the identities of those who contribute to a judicial candidate’s campaign should otherwise be kept from the candidate,” the rule states.

That information, however, is publicly available and easily accessible online.

Jones said she is glad that people are donating to her campaign, saying it means the estate lawyers think she will do a good job.

“I’m happy people have confidence in me to be willing to donate, but I don’t know they are,” Jones told the Eagle.

She has no problem with people donating who have business before the court, she said.

James Brennan, a former Brooklyn assemblymember working on López Torres’ campaign, said that about two-thirds of the incumbent’s campaign money is being self-funded by her and her husband. He also noted that López Torres does not know the identities of her contributors.

Lawyers have also made up the vast majority of donations in Brooklyn’s Civil Court race between Edward King and Bernadette Neckles. King took in 74 percent of his nearly $4,700 from lawyers, and Neckles took 85 percent of her $3,400 from lawyers.

Update (8:30 p.m.): This article was update to reflect that Elena Baron declined to participate in the ratings system of the Brooklyn Bar Association and New York City Bar Association. 

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