Meet the Surrogate Court Judges

Meet the Surrogate Court Judges

Story by Lauren Shapiro and Debralee Santos


Hon. Barbara Jaffe (left) and Hon. Rita Mella (right) are Democratic candidates for New York County’s Surrogate Court Judge this Thurs., Sept. 13th.
Hon. Barbara Jaffe (left) and Hon. Rita Mella
(right) are Democratic candidates for New York
County’s Surrogate Court Judge this Thurs.,
Sept. 13th.

In 1988, the word “surrogate” was very familiar to the public as a result of a high profile dispute in which a surrogate mother refused to relinquish Baby M.

The concept it publicized, that of a surrogate mother, bearing a child on behalf of another woman, is the concept underlying Surrogate’s Court.

It is the court for those who cannot act on their own behalf.

Surrogate’s Court handles wills and estates, guardianship and adoptions; and anyone seeking to adopt a child, act as a financial guardian for an incompetent person, or receive or dispute an inheritance will likely end up there.

Surrogate’s Court handles financial issues of both life and death, and impacts people in the throes of highly personal litigation.

Manhattan Surrogate’s Court has two judges, and one, Surrogate Kristin Booth Glen, having reached the mandatory retirement age of 70, will leave the bench this year.

The race for that judgeship will, for all practical purposes, be decided in the Thurs., Sept. 13th Democratic primary.

Meet the two candidates who are vying to become Manhattan’s new Surrogate Court Judge.

Meet Judge Barbara Jaffe

Judge Barbara Jaffe, currently on the bench in Manhattan Supreme Court, is one of two candidates running for the Surrogate’s Court vacancy.

She was endorsed by former Mayor David Dinkins, and the Citizens Union, among others.

Of the work required as a Surrogate Court judge,” she says, “The judge has to be particularly sensitive.  People are coming after the loss of a spouse, loss of a parent, or even loss of a child and you want to make their experience in court as comfortable as possible so they don’t feel this is just another part of the huge grief that they’re going through.”

She believes the best way for the Court to avoid adding to litigant’s grief is to speed up the proceedings.

“In New York County, the biggest problem is delay,” she observed. “Especially where people have smaller estates and they need funds from these estates to pay funeral and other expenses, they need fast action.”

Her plan to keep the cases moving is to “try to rule from the bench because it’s very important that people get the money soon. I also propose to fast-track less complicated applications – instead of having one big pile of cases that have to be done.”

Cases bog down for many reasons – overloads, courtroom inefficiency, and the parties themselves.

Often a party wants to delay the proceedings so as to wear down the opposition, or delay a trial they foresee bringing an unfavorable result.

They may try to do so by making unnecessary motions (a motion is a request to the judge made during the proceedings).

For example, in certain situations, the Department of Social Services, or creditors, may make a motion to freeze the decedent’s assets pending their claims against proceeds; the decedent’s family may oppose that motion)  or seeking unnecessary adjournments (postponements).

Jaffe cites to her judicial record, with “a very high disposition rate” (disposing of, or finishing cases) as proof that because she is diligent and efficient, one in which her courtroom does not accumulate a backlog.

“I’ve been a trial judge from the beginning,” says Jaffe.  “Therefore when cases languish too long, I’m ready, willing and able to try a case.”

She cites examples in which she has worked to move a case forward.

“When the parties show they cannot settle, or they won’t settle, my saying,

“Call your first witness” is very effective,” she explained as one method she’s employ to get the parties to either compromise or go to trial – and to reach a conclusion to the litigation.

Although she works quickly, Jaffe emphasizes that she is careful.

While some judges merely “deny” or “grant” a motion, with little – or virtually no – explanation of their reasoning, Jaffe notes, “I write full opinions on every motion.”

She finds it fascinating that “Surrogate’s Court handles all kinds of issues, including criminal issues.  If you have someone in prison who is beneficiary of an estate, there are issues with that.

Sometimes the issue is not all that clear,” she observed.

“You have to be very, very careful,” she added.

“The laws change, the laws have wrinkles. I never shoot from the hip; I research everything.”

As to Guardianship and Adoption, Jaffe says, “This is the happy part of Surrogate’s Court, seeing that adoptions go through appropriately.”

She believes her experience in the Matrimonial Part of Supreme Court, particularly deciding custody disputes, will be crucial to her ability to preside over guardianships and adoptions.

“Deciding custody disputes is where the rubber meets the road.

It’s the most difficult decision a judge can make – deciding which spouse a child will live with, which spouse will make the important decisions in that child’s life,” she says.

And drawing on her experience making custody determinations, she says of adoptions: “You want to expedite them, but you want to be very, very careful.

I wouldn’t do them in the courtroom. I would do [the proceedings] in chambers to make the parties very comfortable.”

Aware that legal actions can be financially difficult, Jaffe notes,

“There are filing fees, but they can be waived for those who cannot afford it,” and added that the court has an office to assist those who might not be able to afford representation.

Jaffe also chaired a committee that created a criminal justice handbook, available in six languages, and says, “I want to do the same kind of handbook in Surrogate’s Court.”

You can view the criminal justice handbook, which has chapters including “Central Booking” “Criminal Arraignment” and “Plea Bargaining” at http://www2.nycbar.org/Publications/StateCriminalJusticeH_e.htm.

For more information on Judge Barbara Jaffe, please visit www.judgebarbarajaffe.com.

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