By Henry J. Stern,September 12, 2008
A very important election in New York County (Manhattan) was held Tuesday, but it was practically ignored by both mainstream and alternative media.
The position at stake was Surrogate Judge. It comes with a fourteen-year term. The Surrogate (the word is derived from the Latin sub rogatus) is someone who acts in place of another (cf., a surrogate mother). The Surrogate's duty is to act on behalf of the widows and orphans of people who have died (decedents), and to make decisions in cases involving squabbling heirs, or wannabe heirs.
The Public Administrator, an appointed official, handles the estates of people who have died without leaving a will. To die without a will (intestate) is both foolish and expensive. You may not like the relatives who will end up with your money. And if none can be found, your estate will escheat to the State of New York. Make a will, and let people know where it is, so it can be found when it is needed.
The surrogate has for over a century been an important political office. His, or her, power lies in part in the ability to appoint lawyers, or even non-lawyers, as trustees and guardians ad litem, representing children or adults who may have a claim on the estate. For many years, being on the surrogate’s patronage list provided a steady income to politically connected attorneys. All these fees are taken from of the estates of the deceased, and reduce the sum received by the widows, orphans and other heirs.
Traditionally, Tammany Hall (The New York County Democratic organization) controlled the selection of judges to fill the office. Its candidates were usually unchallenged. Unusually, the Surrogate, whose position is in many ways equivalent to a Justice of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, is not chosen by a judicial convention, which is a gathering of party faithful that has historically been controlled by political bosses. The Democratic, and all other party candidates, are chosen in a primary election. The voters are able to participate, but rarely know much about the candidates. Many votes are cast on the basis of gender and ethnicity, because that is all one can learn about the candidates from seeing their names on the voting machine.
There are two surrogates for New York County, and one each for Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island. Brooklyn was given a second surrogate two three years ago as a result of a deal between Governor Pataki, who got to name some more judges to the Court of Claims, Senator Bruno and Speaker Silver, who intended to choose the second surrogate from Democratic assemblymembers from Brooklyn. In fact, he did, and when No 1 withdrew, he substituted another. The second choice resigned after less than a year in office, amid allegations that he violated campaign finance laws. Assemblyman No. l, a popular man, has served for 36 years in Albany. His seat was previously held by his father. Both Brooklyn surrogates are now women, as are both surrogates from Manhattan, and several of their predecessors.
The primary election that weakened Tammany’s control of the court came in 1966. The Democratic machine nominated Judge Arthur G. Klein, a sitting Justice of the Supreme Court who had been a Congressman in the 1940’s. I knew him because his chambers were close to those of my employer, Justice Matthew M. Levy (60 Centre Street, Room 525). Justice Klein was a tall, attractive and well spoken. He was also a nice man, kind to the law clerks. He was not particularly distinguished as a lawyer or judge, but he had a good reputation and was well liked in the courthouse.
The reformers, who at the time were often insurgents and still committed to ending judicial patronage and making appointments based on merit, nominated Samuel Silverman, a Supreme Court Justice in his fourth year on that court. Silverman had been a partner in the prestigious law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison. One of his law partners was Edward N. Costikyan, who was also the New York County Democratic leader at the time. Costikyan was supported by Mayor Wagner, who had defeated Carmine DeSapio in the 1961 Democratic primary.
The decisive factor in the 1966 primary was Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who endorsed and campaigned vigorously for Silverman. RFK had been elected Senator from New York State in 1964, having moved to the city from Virginia after he resigned as Attorney General. As a child, he had a nexus to New York State since his father, Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, had lived to Riverdale in 1927 and moved north to an estate in Bronxville in 1929. RFK was born in 1925 in Brookline, Massachusetts, where his older brother, John, had been born in 1917.
Kennedy’s election preceded by 36 years a similar event, the election of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2000. New York has always welcomed newcomers, and what more impressive welcome can there be than a seat in the United States Senate, in which both new New Yorkers, the late President’s brother, and the former President’s wife, distinguished themselves. Both Senators Kennedy and Clinton were candidates for President of the United States a few years after they were elected to the Senate. Senator Clinton has not taken the active role in local politics that RFK did, although she did write a letter in support of Speaker Sheldon Silver, who had supported her candidacy since its inception.
It is Friday afternoon, and we do not want to burden you with too much to read. We will tell the story of the 2008 primary campaign next week, except to give you the result, complete except for absentee ballots which cannot affect the result. Nora Anderson, a trusts and estates attorney in private practice, received 26661 votes. John Reddy, a court administrator in the Surrogate’s Court, 14670, and Milton Tingling, a Supreme Court justice, 14167. Justice Tingling had been the choice of the New York County Democratic organization.
Ms. Anderson will take office on January 1, on the retirement of Justice Renee Roth, who had been surrogate for twenty-six years. The Anderson campaign was managed by Michael (Bison) Oliva, an alumnus of New York Civic who has contributed columns to our archives. BTW, the Surrogate’s Court is located in its own building, formerly known as the Hall of Records, at 31 Chambers Street, between Elk and Centre Streets. The senior surrogate will now be Justice Kristin Booth Glen, who was elected in 2005. Surrogates must retire the year they turn 70, a milestone Justice Glen is expected to reach in 2012, when there will be another primary election.