You may have thought that the big race for Democrats this year is that messy scrap for the party’s Mayoral nomination.
Within Manhattan’s organized Democratic Party, however, the focus is elsewhere: on an obscure judgeship with a 14-year term and jurisdiction over hundreds of millions of dollars in estates and dozens of potentially lucrative legal appointments.
The job is New York County Surrogate, and the contest this year is to fill one of the two judgeships at the elaborate palazzo on Chambers Street occupied by the Surrogate’s Court. Party leaders traditionally place a high value on the job, said political consultant Norman Adler, for “the same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks: That’s where the money is.”
Surrogate judges burst occasionally into the tabloids with rulings that affect high-profile estates, like that of Ted Ammon or John F. Kennedy Jr., and with decisions in resonant areas of family law, like gay adoption. This year’s campaign features three Columbia-educated lawyers, one of whom, Eve Rachel Markowich, is said to have the quiet backing of top officials like state party chairman Herman (Denny) Farrell and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, according to party sources. But Mr. Farrell, who doubles as the Manhattan County chairman, told The Observer that he wouldn’t make an endorsement in the race.
“I’m not getting involved in choosing a candidate,” Mr. Farrell said. “We’re not concerned with patronage.”
Mr. Farrell may be above such considerations, but other party leaders are not, as a series of reports from commissions convened by the state court system and the Association of the Bar of the City of New York makes clear. In Queens, the law firm in which county chairman Tom Manton is a partner has had an inside track on the most lucrative appointments, including those appointed directly and indirectly by the Queens County surrogate. In Brooklyn, the surrogate, Michael Feinberg, is appealing a recommendation by the state’s Commission on Judicial Conduct that he be removed from his position for approving excessive fees to a friend.
In a low-profile election that could be decided by the endorsement of The New York Times’ reform-minded editorial board, it’s no surprise that even the candidate with the strongest support from political leaders, Ms. Markowich, hasn’t been advertising her ties to the county organization.
“There are pros and cons to being the county candidate,” said Arthur Greig, the law chairman of the New York County Democratic Party and an active supporter of Ms. Markowich. “The specter of Brooklyn is hanging over this.”
Manhattan, with an independent judicial-screening panel considered a model by reformers, has avoided the kind of criminal scandals that have rocked the Brooklyn courts. But a more genteel-and apparently legal-connection between judicial politics and lucrative appointments has emerged in the past. One of the Manhattan surrogates, Renee Roth, was scolded in a 1998 bar association report for steering 66 percent of her appointments to campaign contributors or lawyers who worked for firms that contributed. Nobody said that this was the crime of the century, or that the lawyers had done a bad job. But the report called for eliminating the “quid pro quo between contributions and guardian appointments,” in which lawyers are appointed to attend to the affairs of a minor, a person who is unable to take care of himself or herself, or the estate of a person who has died without a will.
Since then, Surrogate Roth has given appointments to political supporters. Former Mayor Ed Koch, for example, was paid fees amounting to $77,000 for a guardianship in 2001 and 2002.
“She knows my name, but I’m on the list of people who are qualified,” said Mr. Koch, who took a required course to qualify for such appointments. He pointed to a state rule that blocks lawyers from receiving more than one appointment worth more than $15,000 in a given year. “They’re very careful to prevent this from being used as a trough,” the former Mayor said.
Other lawyers who are active Democrats have done well off the Manhattan courts. Mr. Greig himself, a friend of Ms. Markowich from the Park River Independent Democratic Club, has been a regular recipient of appointments from Democratic judges, including three appointments worth $6,725 in 2004. He said the appointments constituted only a fraction of his practice and are typical for New York litigators.
Another club member and West Side district leader, Stuart Shorenstein, was appointed to two of Surrogate Roth’s most lucrative guardianships in 2002, collecting fees of $395,547.
The other surrogate, Eve Preminger, won her seat 14 years ago without the support of the Manhattan Democratic organization, and her appointments do not appear to include Democratic Party activists. She is retiring from the post, creating a vacancy that will be filled this year.
Although there’s no suggestion that politically connected lawyers mishandled any of the cases they received from the Surrogate’s Court or took unusually large fees, all of the candidates this year have said that they will assign cases based on merit.
“We certainly need to be careful that jobs aren’t given out as a result of political patronage,” Ms. Markowich said. But she also said that she had some doubts about the report of a state panel that suggested barring lawyers with political connections from certain categories of appointments. “We also need to be careful that we don’t set up parameters that preclude people who are really qualified from taking positions, simply because they are also civic-minded and involved in politics,” she said.
Three West Siders
Ms. Markowich (Columbia Law ’88) is one of three women in the race with, at first glance, remarkably similar profiles. She, Kristen Booth Glen (Columbia Law ’66) and Mary Rosado (Columbia Law ’81) all live within a few blocks of each other on the Upper West Side. Upon a closer look, however, significant differences emerge. Ms. Markowich, who has practiced in New York and other Surrogates’ Courts for years-she’s currently involved in a tangle over the Carvel ice-cream fortune in Westchester-is a partner at the Washington-based firm Blank Rome. The candidate, who walks with two artificial legs, has also been active in disability advocacy. She has promised to improve the nuts and bolts of the court and to make it more open to members of minority groups and people who don’t speak English.
“It’s important to make the court welcoming to litigants who come in by thmselves,” she said.
Ms. Glen, the only other candidate to apply to the screening panel, is a former judge and dean of the City University of New York Law School. She is also an activist who has been a prominent figure in civil-rights and civil-liberties litigation since the 1960’s, when she worked as a public-interest lawyer. She was a plaintiff on an early challenge to anti-abortion laws and, as a judge, wrote important decisions on sexual harassment and expanding the right of pregnant women to sue if their fetuses are injured. At CUNY, she defended the law school’s stated aim of educating lawyers from historically underserved communities, and she also defended her students’ relatively low rates of passing the bar on the first attempt.
Ms. Glen is something of a throwback to the pre–Rudy Giuliani, or even pre–Ed Koch, New York. For example, she said she’s skeptical of a state court ruling that made it easier for the authorities to define mentally ill people as “dangerous” and force them to take their medication.
In an interview, Ms. Glen said that she sees the surrogate’s position, with its jurisdiction over the mentally disabled and other incapacitated people, as an extension of her life’s work.
“There’s a question of what you’ve done with your life,” she said. “For 40 years, I’ve been serving the public interest. That’s what I do; that’s what I’ve always done.”
Ms. Rosado, meanwhile, is a late entrant to the race. A lawyer with a solo practice and a focus on elder law, she initially submitted her name to the Democratic Party’s screening panel for a Civil Court seat. But after that panel, which chose just three candidates out of about two dozen, didn’t put her name forward, she followed the urging of friends with ties to the Dominican Bar Association and decided to run for Surrogate’s Court. Her election lawyer, she said, is Stanley Schlein, who is also the lawyer for the Bronx Democratic Party.
“My backers feel that this is the time, because you have so many people of color running for public office in the primary in November,” she said. Her focus as surrogate, she added, would be on bringing diversity to the court and to the lawyers who practice in it.
“I would make sure a cross-section of people get these guardianships-not just my friends,” Ms. Rosado said.