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 August 23.
By Sabina Mollot
While this summer, much of the focus of the local political world has been on the race to fill the State Senate seat that will be vacated by Tom Duane at the end of the year, another race has quietly been running for the position of Manhattan Surrogate’s Court judge.
Along with State Supreme Court Judge Barbara Jaffe, another hopeful for the position is Judge Rita Mella of Manhattan Criminal Court, who’s also a longtime resident of Stuyvesant Town. Like Jaffe, Mella is a Democrat, and the two will face off in the September 13 Primary.
During a recent chat on a bench in Peter Cooper, Mella spoke with Town & Village about how the court system is more a part of people’s lives than they think “even if you’re not in trouble with the law,” and that if elected, she’d do outreach to make Surrogate’s Court more accessible and inclusive.
“Most New Yorkers have never set foot in this beautiful building on Chambers Street,” Mella said. “This is a court that works as an agency. You need to go there if you want to adopt a child or if you need guardianship of a mentally disabled young adult. You need to go there for your probate. You could stay out of court if you have no assets, but if you do, you have to go to court to administer your assets. This is a court of administration rather than litigation.”
Mella, who was born in the Dominican Republic, said she’s always wanted to do public work. She came to the United States at 22, barely knowing how to speak English, and studied and graduated from the CUNY Law School in 1991. On a scholarship, she got her master’s in Latin American history from the University of Florida and her undergraduate degree in the Dominican Republic.
After completing her education, she began her career in law working for a small firm with a focus on criminal defense and for the next 13 years, worked as an attorney in several courts: Surrogate’s, Supreme Court, Civil Court, Family Court and Criminal Court, according to her official bio.
For Mella, the switch to Surrogate’s Court from the Criminal Court, where she’s been assigned since 2007, would be a return to her roots. Previously, she worked as principal law clerk for Surrogate’s Court Judge Margarita Lopez Torres in Brooklyn. Lopez Torres, who Mella calls a reformer, had come in following a period of corruption in the court and it was part of Mella’s job to help her implement “systems of accountability” and make the operations more transparent.
In her current role, Mella chairs the Gender Fairness Committee of the Manhattan Criminal Court, which has organized programs aimed at addressing issues such as sex trafficking of young women, domestic violence among teenagers and relations between the Criminal Courts and the transgender population.
The judge position Mella is running for now would represent all of Manhattan as well as Roosevelt Island and the term would be for 14 years.
Reflecting on the length of the term, which is unusually long by political standards, Mella seemed undaunted.
“Serving the public from a bench is such an honor you don’t ever want to leave it,” she said.
Mella has lived in Stuyvesant Town since 1999 with husband Robert Rosenthal.