There was a time when the Brooklyn Democratic machine hated few people more than it did Margarita López Torres. First elected as a civil court judge in 1992, López Torres clashed with the powerful Brooklyn Democratic Party boss, Clarence Norman Jr., when she refused to hire the politically connected staff Norman demanded she take on.
Ten years later, when her term was up, something nearly unprecedented happened: The Brooklyn Democratic Party refused to support an incumbent judge. Left to fend for herself, López Torres won anyway. In 2005, she beat back the party’s candidate to win a contested election for Surrogate’s Court judge in Brooklyn, the post she still holds today. She later served as the plaintiff in a judicial-reform case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 2019, as López Torres seeks re-election—surrogate judges serve 14-year terms—in a June 25th primary that has attracted little public attention, the political winds have shifted dramatically. The current Brooklyn Democratic chair, Frank Seddio, is supporting her, as well as a wide array of elected officials belonging to both the party’s more machine-aligned and reform wings. Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, and the Working Families Party are among her numerous backers, in addition to many political clubs.
“It’s been a bit surreal,” López Torres told Gothamist. “I’m appreciative because I’ve been a judge for 26 years and I have not been going around to the clubs and dinners in order to get their support. I’ve been out of touch with people who could be helpful.”
But at least one of López Torres's opponents in the three-way Democratic primary is making her newfound establishment ties an issue in the race. The consultant who guided López Torres's 2005 campaign, Gary Tilzer, is now working for one of her opponents, Elena Baron, a civil court judge elected in 2017 without party support. Tilzer and Baron have questioned López Torres's intentions, since she would be forced to retire from the bench in two years, when she turns 70, if she wins next month.
“It’s very important for the court to be independent of all the politics that are going on,” said Baron. “I’m running as the independent Democrat.”
A third candidate, Meredith Jones, also questioned López Torres’s decision to seek another term. Jones, who is running with the support of Norman allies—after serving a prison sentence on corruption charges, Norman has regained influence as a borough power broker—touts her lengthy experience working in Surrogate’s Court as a court attorney referee, a quasi-judicial post that conducts hearings and trials over estates.
“I’m the only candidate with that experience that can fill the full term of 14 years,” she said. “I want to make sure the court runs at its potential and serves the needs of Brooklyn.”
I’m proud to support Judge Margarita López Torres for re-election to the Kings County Surrogate’s Court.
If you are not familiar, Google her name. She is the real deal.
Please join me in voting for the Honorable Margarita López Torres in the June 25th Democratic primary. pic.twitter.com/uMTfTPSa94
— Justin Brannan (@JustinBrannan) May 20, 2019
Little understood by outsiders, Surrogate’s Court is where wills and estates are settled, and where politically plugged-in lawyers can earn a killing on the estates of those who die without wills. In New York, it has been the site of particular patronage and abuse, especially in Queens County, where one lawyer who effectively runs the Queens Democratic Party can make millions from the court each year. The last bastion of true political patronage is the local judicial system because party leaders still play a decisive role in electing judges.
Seddio, the Brooklyn Democratic leader, is himself a former surrogate’s court judge. He only served two years, stepping down in 2007 amid an ethics scandal concerning unspent campaign cash he funneled to political allies.
Brooklyn, though, is not quite Queens. There are two surrogate’s judges instead of one. Competitive judicial elections, for surrogate’s and beyond, are much more common.
López Torres serves with Harriet Thompson, a Norman ally who won last year. The lone Queens surrogate’s judge, Peter Kelly, ran unopposed in 2010; his sister was the chief of staff to Joe Crowley, the former congressman and Queens Democratic boss defeated by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
One way the Brooklyn Democratic Party has played a dominant role in picking judges is through the so-called “backfill”—filling vacancies after judges move up to a higher court. In civil court, party leaders can choose a Democrat as the automatic nominee to fill a vacancy, avoiding a contested primary. In overwhelmingly Democratic Brooklyn, this is tantamount to an election victory.
— LostMessiah (@messiah_lost) May 17, 2019
Surrogate’s Court cannot be backfilled in the same way. A vacancy would simply trigger another open, boroughwide primary, according to election law. Baron and some other critics have raised the possibility that the Democratic chair, Seddio, could choose to elevate López Torres shortly after she wins the June primary to the State Supreme Court, where she would be able to serve until she turned 76. A vacancy created after the Democratic primary and before the general election could be filled without staging another open primary.
This is a scenario Seddio and López Torres deny is the offing. The longtime judge stated unequivocally she has no interest in moving on to the State Supreme Court.
“The Democratic Executive Committee is proudly supporting the re-election of Judge Margarita Lopez-Torres, who has served with distinction as Kings County Surrogate Judge and has been found qualified by the independent Judicial Screening Committee,” said a party spokesperson in a statement.
Allies of López Torres have criticized Baron’s campaign, which has been most vocal about potential backroom deals, for skipping a 25-member judicial screening panel for candidates seeking judgeships. Both López Torres and Jones have been deemed “qualified” by the panel. A vast majority of judicial candidates in Brooklyn submit to screening.
Tilzer, Baron’s consultant, has railed against the Brooklyn panel for having too many appointees who are made by the Brooklyn Democratic chair. Seddio can select three members himself and another seven recommended by Democratic district leaders. The rest are picked by various bar associations, legal groups, and Brooklyn Law School.
Brandon West, the president of New Kings Democrats, a reform political club that has tussled with Seddio and is not endorsing any candidate in the race, said he supported the idea of candidates going to screening panels but wanted the process to be more transparent, since panel members do not disclose the details behind decisions.
“It’s shrouded in a degree of mystery,” he said.
In her time on the bench, López Torres has called for reforms that would actually take power away from her. In New York City, surrogate’s judges choose the public administrator, a city-funded position that processes the estates of those who die without wills. López Torres has urged the state legislature, to no avail, to change the law so the mayor of New York selects the public administrators for each county.
“The public administrator is a commissioner of the City of New York. Workers in the office are employed by the City of New York,” López Torres said. “A judge shouldn’t be appointing a litigant who appears before it.”
For many years, López Torres was the face of judicial reform in the borough. When she served as a civil court judge and battled with Norman, the party boss, she was repeatedly denied promotions to the State Supreme Court, where judges are picked through highly choreographed judicial conventions that typically reward allies of the party.
— Alexandria Connally (@Dr_Connally) February 16, 2019
López Torres argued the way judges were selected in New York was unconstitutional because they denied voters the right to choose among candidates in a genuinely contested election. She won lower court rulings and the case was eventually heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008. But while the justices were sympathetic to the arguments she and good government groups made in front of the court that New York’s judicial system is highly convoluted and could disenfranchise voters, their opinion was summed up by then Justice John Paul Stevens, quoting Thurgood Marshall: “The Constitution does not prohibit legislatures from enacting stupid laws.” López Torres lost.
The June 25th primary is a low-information affair; beyond visits to political clubs, the candidates are not partaking in highly advertised debates or public forums, which is not uncommon. For Democratic voters coming to the ballot in an off year with nothing at the top of the ticket, the names and races of candidates will matter.
Jones, who is black, is counting on votes from the borough’s large African-American and Afro-Caribbean communities, and has released a plan to protect estates from deed and equity theft, an ongoing problem in working class Brooklyn neighborhoods. Baron is a native of the former Soviet Union and speaks often of representing immigrant communities. And López Torres, the first Latina elected to the civil court in New York City, touts her Puerto Rican heritage.
If she wins re-election next month, López Torres said she intends to retire from the legal system entirely after she turns 70. She and her husband have a sailboat, and she said she would like to spend more time on the water.
“There’s more to life than work,” she said.