Friday, July 18, 2008

Why not the Best for Surrogate Court?

“Of all the New York courts that suffer from politics and public misunderstanding, the most tormented is surely the Manhattan Surrogate’s Court. It handles more money than any other – More than a billion dollars in estates a year. That makes it a traditional source of lawyers’ patronage – and rumors of favoritism. Reformers rail at costly probate delays and their election-year vows to clean up the place do nothing for its image. . .

And Renee Roth, a law assistant to the Brooklyn Surrogate for more than a decade, has vast experience and an outstanding reputation for knowledge and integrity. . .We judge Renee Roth best equipped to give the Surrogate’s office much-needed lift in public esteem. Her dignity, serious purpose, knowledge of the law practice and instinctive probity would be a credit to the court.” –NY Times, Sept 17,
Surrogate Court Primaries, published: September 6, 1996
Next Tuesday's Democratic primary elections for the obscure but powerful post of Surrogate's Court judge in Manhattan and Brooklyn have sparked intense competition and bitter debates over personality and patronage. Voters need to decide which of the candidates have the best mix of integrity, expertise, judicial temperament and administrative skills for a job that entails overseeing wills, estates and adoptions and dispensing millions of dollars in fees to lawyers acting as executors, guardians and estate trustees.
In a fierce battle in Manhattan, the incumbent Surrogate Renee Roth faces a tough re-election challenge from Karen Burstein, a former State Senator and Family Court judge who ran unsuccessfully for State Attorney General two years ago.
We supported Ms. Burstein for Attorney General and respect her ability to spotlight issues and advocate constructive reform within the political arena. But Ms. Burstein, who quit the Family Court because she found being a judge too ''passive,'' is miscast for the surrogate's job, which calls for tempered judicial and administrative skills to wrestle behind the scenes with arcane issues of trust and estates and tax law.
Judge Roth, during 14 years in the Surrogate's job, has proved fair and able. She has brought a refreshing measure of expertise and integrity to bear on a court that was mired in patronage and accusations of political favoritism when she ran promising reforms in 1982. Her most notable failing has been insufficient aggressiveness in overhauling the office, which oversees the estates of people who die without wills or known heirs. But over all she has done an admirable job and boosted the court's credibility. She takes justifiable pride in setting a high standard of competence for fiduciary appointments and spreading the patronage to include women and minorities.
Now Judge Roth will have to set even higher goals for her second term if she is to avoid the taint of suspicion. A relatively small coterie of qualified lawyers still receives a disproportionate share of the cases and fees distributed by the court, and many of them have shown up as big contributors to her campaign. By contrast, Ms. Burstein, to her credit, is not accepting contributions from lawyers who practice in Surrogate's Court, and has limited individual donations to $500.
On the basis of her solid overall performance, Judge Roth earns our endorsement. But it comes with a challenge to rethink the system of fiduciary appointments to minimize any appearance that big contributors to her campaign are being rewarded. - NY Times, 6, 1996

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