Photo Credit: Judge Hilary Gingold
Judge Hilary Gingold, center, talks with voters (left to right) Esther Ku, 85, and Helen Tang, 83. The two are sisters.

It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does there is serious competition for the position.

Next month, a primary election will be held among three candidates who want to be the next judge to sit on the bench in Surrogate’s Court in New York County, also known as Manhattan. The position is seen as a plum opportunity because the term for the judgeship is 14 years and there are only one or two judges in each county. In Manhattan there are two judges on the Surrogate’s Court bench, Rita Mella and Nora Anderson, who is vacating her post upon reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70 this year. The position pays $210,900 annually.

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Vying for the spot are Hilary Gingold, 59, Elba Galvan, 55, and Verley Brown, 50, all with varying personal and professional backgrounds.

Gingold is the only Jewish candidate among the three. She has been married 38 years to her husband, Mark Gottlieb. They live on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

During a wide-ranging two-hour conversation, Gingold believes several personal health issues during her younger days shaped what she believes will be a successful term in Surrogate’s Court. She and her husband have two adult children, a son who is 32 and a daughter who is 28.

“Surrogate’s Court is not for the dead, it’s for the living. That is the key thing you have to keep in mind,” Gingold told The Jewish Press exclusively. “During moments of extreme grief, we have to live. It’s what you want for your children. It’s what you want for your grandchildren. You want them to go on. Not to forget, but to go on. That is a critical component of being a judge. You can only get that way if you’ve been a judge. You have to have rachmonis [sympathy]. You have to have empathy for another living being.”

She spoke about her passion for helping people.

“I was a social worker for five years,” Gingold said. “I worked in food pantries, soup kitchens, domestic shelters for women running from domestic violence. I kept food in the back of my car when I was a young, married woman as a precursor to Island Harvest. I learned at a very early age to take care of people. My father grew up incredibly poor. I’ve grown up knowing food insecurity my entire life.”

Gingold attends religious services at the Chabad on the Upper East Side, located on 77th Street, under the leadership of Rabbi Ben Tzion Krasnianski. She can also be found at the renowned Park East Synagogue. She says she keeps a kosher-style home, no traif and enjoys taking hikes in upstate Ulster County.

Gingold graduated from Adelphi University, magna cum laude, in 1982 with a bachelor’s degree in social work. She received her law degree from St. John’s University in 1985 and was a member of the law review.

From 2011 to 2017 she was the principal law clerk to three judges in state Supreme Court, Queens. She specialized in negligence and contract disputes to matrimonial matters, landlord and tenant and foreclosures, according to her resume.

Prior to that assignment, she spent three years as a foreclosure training supervisor with the Queens Volunteer Lawyers Project, Inc., a not-for-profit legal assistance program that provides Queens residents who cannot afford to retain a lawyer to resolve their civil legal problems with an attorney, pro bono.

In 2019, Gingold was elected Civil Court judge for Manhattan but was assigned to city criminal court in Brooklyn to unclog a backlog of cases due to Covid.

“Dealing with Covid, it’s all a work in progress. The lawyers want to come back in to the courtroom, believe it or not,” Gingold said. “It’s very hard to negotiate with people when someone is on the computer and someone’s in person. When they are both at home it is very hard to settle the case. We still have plastic screens up. I feel like I’m a bank teller. The only good thing for me is that I feel I’m not exposed to as many germs.”

Last year she was sent back to serve in the court she was elected to serve – Civil Court of the City of New York, New York County. Her salary is $198,631 annually. In 2019, her rate of pay was $211,537, according to the government watchdog group Empire Center, which receives salary information from the state Comptroller’s office and posts them on their website (seethroughny.net/payrolls).

“You certainly don’t become a judge for the money. You can always make more money in private practice,” she commented.

“When you’re a civil court elected judge, you are here to serve in a high-needs court. That’s how it’s done,” Gingold said as she explained why she served in a judicial capacity she was not elected to serve. “You want a judge in civil court to know what goes on in other buildings. It’s not to deprive the public of what they thought they voted for. Rarely is a judge sent directly to civil court in the borough in which they are elected, especially when you’re elected in Manhattan. Six of us went to criminal court in different boroughs. That’s the general protocol.

“I’m a legal geek. That’s my brain. We’re always training, we’re always learning and we’re always leading. This is cross-training and you need it. My children said, Ma, what do you know about criminal court? I said I’m going to learn,” Gingold said.

When Gingold was with the Queens Bar Association, she was a cheerleader for that county’s lawyers’ group.

“I was part of the Queens County Bar Association at the time for six years. I was in private practice and then I got the job in Queens. I got to know the people there. Many of them are still my good friends. I never quit my job because of where I lived. I have a family to support. I was not a judge at the time but I was active with the Bar Association. One of the things when you’re active with the bar is to promote that bar’s agenda, which is the Queens County Court.

“As far as Surrogate’s is concerned, I have a 25-year history prior to the court system in private practice. I spent 19 years in my own practice doing trusts and estates and transactional work. I represented families and the elderly, specialized in trusts and estates, guardianship of incapacitated individuals and commercial transactions,” Gingold said.

She is a member of the NYC Jewish Lawyers Guild and the Brandeis Lawyers’ Association, where she rose to the rank of vice-president.

As a judge, Gingold has served in Kings County Criminal Court and New York County Civil Court. Gingold worked as a principal law clerk in Queens. She was also appointed as the principal court attorney for the chief judge of the court of appeal’s Excellence Initiative to address the case backlog in Bronx County Supreme Court.

“I’ve served in, except for Staten Island, I’ve been in all the boroughs and I really feel that I am the most qualified,” Gingold said. “I think being a judge in Surrogate’s Court it’s required for a number of skills sets that are hard to develop on the job.”

Another candidate, Elba Galvin, 55, resides in Washington Heights with her husband. They have three children, all boys. One is a college junior and aspiring oceanographer, another child is an incoming college freshman studying environmental sustainability and the third is a high school junior who plays the trombone at Manhattan’s Special Music School, according to her campaign website.

Galvan is the second oldest of five children born to a Peruvian father and a mother with German-Russian ancestry. She says, “I am not actively practicing a religion.”

During a 30-minute interview, Galvan disclosed to The Jewish Press that her campaigning centers around “meeting with neighbors, canvassing, people who have connections to buildings where there are voters who are interested in meeting candidates, going to planned community events with literature. A large part of what a candidate relies on is the willingness of the electorate to read literature,” she said.

She currently is employed as a court attorney referee in Surrogate’s Court earning $152,611 annually.

She says she will “be a very detail-oriented jurist. I’m the only candidate who has actual referee experience in Surrogate’s Court. It’s a quasi-judicial position. I conduct hearings in Surrogate’s Court, settlement conferences, write decisions. I work for the Courts. I’m a court attorney referee in Surrogate’s Court.

“We’re conferencing cases. Many cases in Surrogate’s Court are attempted to be resolved without a full-blown trial. Referees play a very large role in that as well we conduct hearings and we write decisions. Being a mediator is certainly one way to describe an aspect of the position,” Galvan concluded.

Galvan also produced a movie that was released in 2013 titled, A Dreamer, A True Story.

“We were trying to get people aware of what is a dreamer. This was when the Dream Act was being considered by Congress,” Galvan said. “The movie helps explain what the purpose of the legislation is. It told a story poignantly at a time when that story was really to make people just understand what the meaning of Dreamer is. One of the ways we thought would be effective would be through storytelling in a narrative film. A friend of mine wrote this amazing script to relay the story in a way that people could identify with the characters in terms of what they have been experiencing on a day-to-day basis. There was no revenue generated by the film.”

The third candidate in the race, Jamaican-born Verley Brown, 50, a gay man with three children and a domestic partner, Jeff. Brown’s daughter is in college and one son is serving in the United States Army. Brown received his law degree from Brooklyn Law School and a bachelor’s of science degree in legal studies from John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Prior to college, he served in the United States Marine Corps. After living in several Manhattan neighborhoods, he currently lives in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. During his spare time, Brown enjoys traveling, dining out and soaking up the sun at the beach.

Prior to attending law school, Brown worked as a Senior Surrogate’s Court Clerk. Here he reviewed all accounting and miscellaneous proceedings for compliance with Estates, Powers and Trusts Law, Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act and Surrogate’s Court Rules, relating to wrongful death compromises, supplemental needs trusts, fiduciary accountings and all other miscellaneous proceedings.

He currently works on Long Island as an associate attorney for the firm Meltzer, Lippe, Goldstein & Breitstone, LLP, where since 2021 he is part of the firm’s Trusts & Estates Litigation practice group.

“It took a pandemic to drag the Surrogate’s Court into the 21st Century to start doing e-filing,” Brown told The Jewish Press. “There have been some changes that have occurred by necessity in Surrogate’s Court where now they participate in e-filing, they now do remote hearings. It’s been more efficient so far for practitioners.

“I would like to improve the e-filing system to make it more streamlined. I would also like to have a bifurcated docket and work more efficiently on matters that are not contested and do not have any issues so that they do not get bogged down with the contested matters that have other issues such as jurisdictional issues or any other issues with the filings themselves,” Brown concluded.

Brown sees further efficiencies towards making the court easier to navigate without needing to hire an attorney.

“I want Surrogate’s Court to be accessible to every litigant whether you’re represented by a primary trusts and estates firm or if you’re not represented by an attorney at all,” Brown said. “Surrogate’s Court needs to be more user-friendly and access to information should be made easier. That’s not difficult to do. Other courts have DIY [Do It Yourself] forms or a DIY section on their website that helps pro se litigants get things done. There’s no reason why we can’t do that in Surrogate’s Court as well.”

 

Endorsements

Galvan has received two club endorsements and almost had a third. She was endorsed by the Village Independent Democrats and the Coalition for District Alternatives. The Broadway Democrats gave her 45 percent of their support – she needed 50% to receive a formal endorsement. Her campaign website can be found at elbaforsurrogate.com.

Gingold has been endorsed by more than 20 Manhattan democratic clubs and received 40% of the Broadway Democrats vote.

Brown and Gingold were found “qualified” to serve as a Surrogate’s Court judge by the LGBT Bar NY – Le-Gal.

Brown has a meager campaign website which can be found at: https://www.verleyforsurrogate.com/.

Gingold and Galvan were found to be “qualified” by an independent judicial screening panel in February but Gingold was the only one who received the endorsement of the Manhattan Democratic party faithful, comprised of the district leaders of the county committee, by a vote of 47 to 3.

You can find Gingold’s information at her campaign website https://www.hilary4surrogate.com/.

The primary election is slated for Tuesday, June 28.

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Marc Gronich is news director of Statewide News Service. He also operates the website JBizTechValley.com. He has been covering government and politics since 1981. His Albany Beat column appears monthly in The Jewish Press.