Manhattan Surrogate candidate: I’d make court more user-friendly

Primary Day is Thursday, September 13. Town & Village is running bios of Democrat candidates for the positions of Manhattan Surrogate’s Court judge and the State Senate seat to be vacated by Tom Duane.

This article was originally published on September 6.

Judge Barbara Jaffe

By Sabina Mollot

Recently, Town & Village spoke with a candidate for one of two Manhattan Surrogate’s Court judge positions, the Civil Court’s Judge Rita Mella, a Stuyvesant Town resident.

Along with Mella, who’s said if elected she would make the Surrogate’s Court — which sooner or later everyone has to go through for matters relating to wills, estates and guardianship — more user friendly, an East Midtown resident and State Supreme Court judge dealing with matrimonial cases, Barbara Jaffe, is running on a similar platform.

“This court itself is very important because anybody can end up in Surrogate’s Court,” she said. “That’s why New Yorkers should be interested (in this race). Everyone loses family friends who pass away and the litigants are not there voluntarily. They don’t just show up to sue somebody. They’re fighting over an estate.”

The two Democrats will face off in a September 13 primary. So far no Republicans have announced candidacy for the position, which would represent a district covering Manhattan and Roosevelt Island over a 14-year term. However, if Jaffe, who’s 60, is elected, she noted that for her it would only be a 10-year term due to a required retirement age of 70. The current Manhattan surrogate, Kristin Booth Glen, will be leaving the bench this year for that reason as well.

So far, Jaffe’s earned the lion’s share of endorsements from other judges while Mella has earned the backing of politicians including Council Members Dan Garodnick and Rosie Mendez.

However, Jaffe said she believes she’s the right judge for the job based on her judicial background and business background. She’s mainly a matrimonial judge while her opponent is assigned to the Criminal Court.

“I believe I can make the most significant contribution to this important court,” said Jaffe. “I handle custody cases and I handle a lot of very divisive family issues. I also have to deal with financial issues, which crop up a lot.”

She also gets the occasional housing case, like primary residence challenges, and NYCHA is often involved.

Most of her cases, however, end up being settled, a good 98 percent of the financially related ones in fact. It isn’t that she’s “trial-shy,” as she put it, but Jaffe said she does try to get cases concluded quickly.

“I don’t shoot from the hip, (but) I work smart and I work fast,” said Jaffe.

In many of the cases, she pointed out, there are no attorneys, and this makes it all the more important for the system to be understandable.

As for how to make that happen, Jaffe said she has a few ideas.

“One is something I’m already doing,” she said, referring to a handbook she created on the criminal justice system that’s been translated into several languages. “It’s still distributed. It costs no money,” she said, adding that she would like to create similar how-to type literature for the Surrogate’s Court. As she got it done the last time, Jaffe said she would get the handbook produced with the help of volunteer law school graduates who must do 50 hours of pro bono services. The court would then pay the printing costs. Jaffe also said she would like to create literature to help people use computers that are available for public use at the court.

The candidate added that she has also done outreach on the workings of the court in other ways.

While serving as the president of the Association of Small Claims Arbitrators in the mid-1990s, Jaffe would go to places like churches and synagogues as well as community board meetings and do presentations on court proceedings, like how to file a small claims suit.

While doing this she also worked as an attorney in the State Supreme Court and then as a law clerk for Justice Marcy L Kahn. In 2002, she began serving as a judge in the Civil Court of New York City and in 2010, as a justice specially assigned to matrimonial trials in the State Supreme Court.

As for the fact that if voted in to the Surrogate’s Court, she’d have a somewhat shortened term, Jaffe said this actually works in the public’s benefit since as someone who wouldn’t have to worry about reelection, “I don’t have to curry favor with anyone to run again.”

Jaffe, who began her career in law in 1986 as an associate counsel for the Legal Aid Society, said she always wanted to work in that field. However, law is actually her second career. After graduating from Brooklyn Law School, she worked in the antique industry, running Madison Galleries, a wholesale antiques and arts business. Ironically, her eight years there would help her later on the bench, when dealing with estate cases that involve antique collections. She also has given presentations and written many articles on art and law “and how to prove what things are worth” in legal publications.

Jaffe has been a resident of Manhattan since 1975 and has lived in the East Midtown area since 1994.

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