Brooklyn Boro

Meet the candidates in Brooklyn’s judicial elections

June 21, 2019 Rob Abruzzese
A polling center staff member waits to give out stickers to people who have cast their vote on Nov. 6 in Brooklyn. AP Photo/Wong Maye-E

Brooklynites head to the polls on Tuesday to vote in Democratic primaries to fill a handful of judicial seats. But how much do you know about the names that will be on your ballot?

Judicial elections — though they deal with some of the most important seats in local government — are also some of the least talked about.

Here’s some background on the names that will greet you in the voting booth on Tuesday.  And while you’re at it, read up on where they stand on some of the issues and where their campaign money is coming from.

Surrogate’s Court

The Surrogate’s Court handles people’s property after they die, usually because they didn’t have a will, but virtually all wills pass through the court in order to be probated (setting in motion the formal transfer of ownership).

The court also handles adoptions, including those that involve people alleged to have an intellectual or developmental disability.

In New York City, surrogate judges are elected to 14-year terms.

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

Meet the candidates

Elena Baron

Elena Baron (center) at her swearing-in ceremony. Eagle file photo by Rob Abruzzese

Elena Baron, a graduate of NYU and Brooklyn Law School, became the first elected Russian-born judge in the U.S. in 2017. Active in her local community, Judge Baron was a member of Community Board 14 and served on the editorial board of the Brooklyn Bar Association’s Brooklyn Barrister.

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She began working in the courts as a court attorney in 2009 and became a principal law clerk to a Brooklyn Supreme Court justice in 2015. She was elected to the bench in January 2017.

“I immigrated to America at the age of 15,” Baron said. “I didn’t speak a word of English. I went through high school on a full scholarship. I worked my way through college, I graduated from NYU on a full scholarship and then I worked my way through Brooklyn Law School as a mom with a 3-year-old. I did it even though I’m an immigrant and my family had very few resources.”

Baron was rated as not approved by the New York City Bar Association and not approved for failure to participate by the Brooklyn Bar Association. She raised a total of $19,415. None of that money was raised from estate attorneys, who have business before the Surrogate’s Court.

Meredith R. Jones

Meredith Jones. Photo courtesy of Jones’ campaign.

Meredith Jones, a Cornell Law School graduate, served as a private attorney before she began working for the Surrogate’s Court Law Department in 2003. She was the first black attorney picked for the role.

As a court-attorney referee, Jones advises the surrogate, conducts trials, hearings, does research, drafts decisions and presides over settlement conferences. She has been endorsed by former Brooklyn Surrogate Hon. Diana Johnson.

When speaking publicly, Jones often advocates that the Surrogate’s Court has to do more to fight against deed theft, which she says has become an issue in Brooklyn and promises that she will advocate for better funding for the court.

“In certain communities more than others you see people trying to steal the value of people’s homes from the next generation,” Jones said. “People don’t understand that the surrogate can stand between that.”

Jones was rated as approved by the New York City Bar Association as well as by the Brooklyn Bar Association. She raised $9,500 dollars, including at least $3,400 from estate lawyers who practice before the Surrogate’s Court.

Margarita López Torres

The Brooklyn Women’s Bar Association was at the Surrogate’s Court recently when its members sat down with Hon. Margarita López Torres for its monthly “Lunch with a Judge.” Eagle photos by Rob Abruzzese
Hon. Margarita López. Eagle file photo by Rob Abruzzese

Justice Margarita López Torres grew up in East New York and Brownsville, and graduated from Queens College and Rutgers University School of Law. She has served as one of the two surrogates in Brooklyn since she was elected in 2006. When she became a judge in 1993, she was the first Hispanic woman to be elected to the Civil Court in New York City.

Before becoming a judge, she was a teacher and also worked for Manhattan Legal Services, which provides assistance to low-income neighbors. López Torres also served as an Assistant Corporation Counsel for the city, was director of the family law unit for of Brooklyn Legal Services Corp A, and then served as deputy general counsel for the New York City Human Resources Administration.

López Torres often touts her work to help people who choose to represent themselves and was integral in opening a Help Center for people who chose to do so in Brooklyn.

“A lot of the litigants are represented by an attorney, but many are not,” López Torres told the Brooklyn Eagle. “It becomes a daunting experience for them to come to court without an attorney.”

López Torres contested a state law in 2005 that gives political parties control over nominating judges for election. The case went all the way to the US Supreme Court before it was struck down.

While López Torres ran without party support in her original campaign, now she is running with the Brooklyn Democratic Party’s support.

López Torres is 68 years old and, due to age restrictions, will have to retire at age 70.

She was rated as approved by the New York City Bar Association as well as the Brooklyn Bar Association. She raised $42,471, including at least $18,300 from estate lawyers who practice before the Surrogate’s Court.

Civil Court

The Civil Court deals with civil cases in Brooklyn involving $25,000 or less. It also handles landlord-tenant disputes. Judges are elected to 10-year terms and may also be assigned to criminal or family courts, and potentially even other boroughs.

Some Civil Court seats are elected countywide, while others are elected by districts.

In this year’s election, all Brooklyn residents will vote for the countywide candidates, while residents in Brooklyn’s Sixth District (Park Slope, Midwood, Prospect Heights, Crown Heights, Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Flatbush, East Flatbush, Prospect Park South, Kensington and Ditmas Park) will vote on a second seat.

Meet the countywide candidates

Edward King

Attorney Edward King, who has an office on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, is running for a countywide position on the Civil Court bench in the June primary. Eagle photo by Rob Abruzzese
Edward King. Eagle file photo by Rob Abruzzese

Edward King graduated from Taft High School in the Bronx before he joined the army, where he served as a military police officer, before he went to Antioch School of Law in Washington, D.C.

His legal career began as a law assistant for two judges before he decided to open up a private practice in Bedford-Stuyvesant in the bottom floor of his home. His practice handles real estate issues, trusts and estates, and civil litigation. In his campaign speeches, he often is highly critical of the city’s controversial Third Party Transfer Program.

“You can expect that I’ll listen to what you’re talking about and have a sensitivity to what you are talking about,” King said. “I’ll give you a fair shot in terms of what your claim or defense is, and God willing, I will come out with a just result.”

King was rated as approved by the New York City Bar Association as well as by the Brooklyn Bar Association. He raised $4,664.03 in contributions.

D. Bernadette Neckles

D. Bernadette Neckles was inspired at an early age to become a judge. While she lost the election in 2017, she is running again for the countywide Civil Court judicial seat and hopes that the lessons she learned the first time around will help her prevail in her latest attempt. Eagle photo by Rob Abruzzese
D. Bernadette Neckles. Eagle photo by Rob Abruzzese

D. Bernadette Neckles, an immigrant from Grenada, graduated from Brooklyn College and the University of Miami School of Law.

After law school, she worked for a year in private practice in Florida before she moved to Brooklyn to fight cases in employment discrimination, civil rights and police brutality. She eventually began working in the courts as a law clerk for Hon. Sylvia Hinds-Radix in the Civil Court and then later the Supreme Court. When Hinds-Radix moved to the Appellate Division, Neckles stayed in the Supreme Court as a court-attorney referee.

Neckles is active in the local bar associations, especially the Brooklyn Women’s Bar, where she is the vice president. She also helps the court by participating in the Summer Youth Internship Program that helps introduce local high school and college students to careers at the court.

“When I handle a trial, I review the files and issues ahead of time, familiarize myself with the issues and research,” Neckles said. “Then I make a ruling based on the facts of the case … and take into consideration the community that I belong to. I make decisions based on the facts, the law and the circumstances and I think that’s the way it should be.”

Neckles was rated as approved by the New York City Bar Association as well as by the Brooklyn Bar Association. She raised $3,435 in contributions.

Meet the District 6 candidates

Tehilah H. Berman

Tehilah Berman began attending NYU at age 16. She graduated from Brooklyn Law School and was admitted to the bar by the age of 23. As an attorney, she has focused on criminal appeals and post-conviction proceedings. She also specialized in employee benefits and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act.

After working as an associate at various firms for over 20 years, she began working for the courts in 2015 when she became the principal court attorney for Hon. Katherine Levine first in the Civil Court and then eventually in the Supreme Court.

“I want to be a judge because I love the law and I truly love people,” Berman said. “I want to have a meaningful impact on people’s lives.”

“My court experience comes from having served as a principal court attorney to a civil court judge, then as a principal law clerk to a Supreme Court Justice.”

Berman was rated as not approved by the New York City Bar Association as well as not approved for failure to participate by the Brooklyn Bar Association. She did not raise any money in contributions.

Caroline P. Cohen

Caroline Cohen is a graduate of NYU and Cardozo School of Law, who has spent the last 2 1/2 years focused on fighting gender and pregnancy discrimination with the law firm Crumiller P.C.

Her career began at NYCHA where she dealt with issues facing tenants in Housing Court. She also serves as a member of the Kings County Democratic Committee, was a judicial delegate for Assembly District 42 in 2017 and 2018, and served on the Court Civility Task Force. She is also the co-founder of Ditmas Art, a quarterly mixed-media arts event focused on political discourse.

“My mother wanted to be a lawyer, and ultimately a judge, but her father forbade her from attending law school,” Cohen said. “My mother saw qualities in me that she saw in herself, including determination and leadership, and encouraged me to attend law school. After my mother passed away, I wanted to fulfill her dream, now mine, of becoming a judge.

“Becoming a judge in many ways is an extension of the love I have for my community, as evidenced by my extensive work as a community activist, and is the next step I can take to be in service of others.”

Cohen was rated as approved by the New York City Bar Association as well as by the Brooklyn Bar Association. She raised $102,795 in contributions.

Alice A. Nicholson

Alice A. Nicholson is a graduate of Hunter College and the New York University School of Law, where she worked on police brutality cases at the Center for Constitutional Rights and interned for the American Civil Liberties Union.

After graduation, Nicholson went to work at Bedford-Stuyvesant Legal Services and Queens Legal Services before she moved on to serve as a court attorney at the Appellate Division, Second Judicial Department.

In her career as a private attorney, she worked on commercial litigation, real estate transactions and was on the 18B Assigned Counsel Panel, which helps to protect defendants’ rights on appeal in criminal cases.

In the run up to the election, she has often talked about how foreclosures are an issue in Brooklyn and promised to let the community have its say in court.

“I was before a judge recently and I took the entire family before the judge so they could see who the people are,” she said. “I did foreclosure and I thought that my cases were not index numbers. It’s a family that sleeps at night, wakes up in the morning … I knew that once I did [bring them in front of the judge] we would get a favorable result. Once we know and live the stories in the communities we can use better discretion on the bench.”

Nicholson was rated as not approved by the New York City Bar Association as well as not approved for failure to participate by the Brooklyn Bar Association. She did not raise any money in contributions.

Chinyelu O. Udoh

Chinyela Odoh is the daughter of Nigerian parents who was born in Los Angeles and moved to New York to attend Pace University School of Law. She began interning at the Social Justice Center in law school and has focused her career on civil rights issues.

Two of her mentors in her legal career have been attorneys Bill Kunsler, who she met in law school, and Ron Kuby, who she began working for later in her career. After she interned with the Legal Aid Society, she briefly clerked for a judge before joining the Legal Aid staff.

She explains that her parents were forced to flee Nigeria during the Nigerian Civil War, and that it is because of their influence that she wanted to become an attorney at a young age.

“I personally have to say: Working at Legal Aid Society was one of the best opportunities that I’ve ever had when it comes to being a part of the law,” Udoh said. “There is something to be said for dealing with the most vulnerable people in society.”

Udoh was rated as approved by the New York City Bar Association as well as by the Brooklyn Bar Association. She raised $37,245 in contributions.

All candidates are listed in alphabetical order. 

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