By Sabina Mollot
Midtown resident Grace Park, an attorney for the past 20 years and a mother of two teen boys, is on the ballot for a position that doesn’t pop up too often — Civil Court judge.
And considering that most people don’t know that judges even need to be elected, and considering that this is a quiet election year, Park knows it’s going to be tough to get voters out to a June 25 Democratic primary.
She’s just begun the process of getting the word out about the race, in which she is running against Lynne Fischman Uniman, another experienced attorney.
There is no Republican candidate for this position, which is to represent the 4th District, an area that covers Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village, Gramercy, Kips Bay, Murray Hill and Midtown East.
The last time the district even had a primary for this judicial race was in 1993, with the election of Sherry Klein Heitler. In part this is due to terms that are lengthy at 10 years.
For the past 14 years, Park, who’s 50, has represented cases involving children as an attorney for the Legal Aid Society.
“I always knew I wanted to be a judge,” Park said, adding that she thought many of her fellow attorneys where she works would also make qualified candidates, but that the cost of running stops them.
Park guessed she’ll probably have to spend $150,000 on costs associated with candidacy and promotion, and while there is a $193,000 salary if she wins, it’s still a costly gamble for a local race. Complicating things further is that it’s hard to fundraise when you’re running for a judicial position. Unlike other political candidates, potential judges aren’t supposed to reveal where they stand on the issues they’re certain to be asked about.
“You have to follow the law,” Park explained. “They ask, ‘What are your stances?’ and I say, ‘I’ve worked for 14 years representing children in Family Court at the Legal Aid Society. That’s what I chose to do with my life.’ I do emphasize I’ll be fair, but who doesn’t want to be fair?”
Additionally, she conceded, court isn’t something voters usually even think about. “Most voters have no experience with court.”
So she doesn’t expect to do much fundraising.
Park has found allies, though, having gotten the backing of five Democratic clubs, including her own, Tilden, and she’s gotten endorsements from nine Manhattan elected officials and former elected officials. They include Assembly Members Harvey Epstein, Richard Gottfried and Yuh-Line Niou, former State Senator Tom Duane, Council Member Carlina Rivera and former Council Members Dan Garodnick and Rosie Mendez.
Park said she finds the Civil Court position an appealing one to her personally because, “It’s the ER of the Court System. It is the people’s court. That’s how I feel about it and I consider myself a people’s lawyer and I’d be the people’s judge.”
In Civil Court, cases include small claims of up to $25,000 in value and there are also some housing cases. Most of the time however, judges are assigned to Family or Criminal Court for their first couple of years, depending on where the demand is. Despite representing District 4, as Civil Court judge, Park could be assigned elsewhere in the city.
Having handled many cases in the court as an attorney, Park said that for the client, Civil Court is often just about being heard. She gave an example of how once, when representing a 15-year-old girl who’d been arrested for fighting and obstruction of justice, she knew they’d lose the case because the court would believe the cop and not her. But the client refused to accept a deal as Park had suggested, instead insisting on sharing her side of the story in court. After that, as Park had predicted, the girl lost the case.
“But,” Park added, “she didn’t mind. She just wanted to tell the judge her story.”
Civil Court also handles housing disputes such as eviction cases, often with tenants having no representation. As a judge, Park said she would make sure tenants are aware there is funding for attorneys or at least free advice if they need it.
“I will do as much as the law allows,” she said. “I will give an adjournment so people and get an attorney or help, so it’s more equal.”
She is also in favor of modernizing the court process, by allowing conference appearances over the phone. “I don’t need them to come in and lose a whole day of work when you can call in,” she said.
Park is also for encouraging people who have an important court date to bring a friend or family member with them if possible.
“Sometimes people need to vent or explain,” said Park. “Sometimes people will say, I don’t know what I pled to or what I agreed to.”
As an attorney, Park has seen her fair share of tough cases.
“I’ve had over 1,000 cases. The most heart wrenching cases are sex abuse cases, where it’s often a mother’s boyfriend who molests a girl. That’s bad enough but sometimes the mothers, because of other issues, like their inability to care for themselves, choose the guy over the child.”
There are also cases involving drug abuse, mental illness and domestic violence. In such cases, attorneys find themselves trying to find the scenario that is in the child’s best interest, whether this means going back to a family home or foster care. Even more heart wrenching for attorneys is when they encounter children from cases later on because they’ve become defendants in their own cases.
“Those are always a punch in the stomach,” said Park, “but I still think we are making a difference.”
She also has encountered plenty of human kindness through her work, giving an example of a woman who took on four foster children and then decided to adopt them despite her devotion to them causing her marriage to crumble. Or the people who, after receiving a late night phone call, will immediately hop onto a plane to take custody of a young relative. Then there are individuals who continue to see a child as their own despite a damning DNA test claiming otherwise.
Park has also known struggle in her personal life, but also familial support.
Though she goes by Grace, her given first name is actually Eun Hai, which means Grace in Korean.
“My mother was a single mother,” said Park. “She had me in Korea, where there were limited opportunities for a child with no father. We were very poor and my family was from North Korea and they escaped. My grandfather had lands and had to give them up. My grandmother was stopped by a guard and she gave him silver spoons and chili powder and the guard let her pass. That’s how my mother was able to escape to Seoul. My family always stressed education. I later told my kids education is the only thing that can’t be taken from you.”
Park’s education includes degrees from University of Pennsylvania Law School (J.D.), Columbia (M.P.A.), Harvard (M.A.) and Dartmouth (D.A.). She’s also interned at the district attorney offices in Manhattan and Middlesex County. Prior to joining Legal Aid as an attorney, then later becoming an assistant attorney in charge, Park worked for two private law firms, Pryor Cashman Sherman & Flynn LLP and Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson as a litigation associate. She was also a law clerk to the U.S. District Court’s Eastern District of New York Judge Jacob Mishler.
She now has two sons, Joseph and Robert, 14 and 18, with husband Joseph Hong, a retired computer programmer and teacher. Hong has more recently become a campaign cheerleader for his wife.
“He’s been out campaigning. People know him better than they know me,” said Park. As for her sons, they support her aspirations in their own way. “My two boys don’t want me home,” she admitted. “They’re nagging me to go back to work.”