The Race For Surrogate’s Court

Three lawyers vying for a judicial spot in Manhattan are counting on locals’ votes

| 08 Jun 2022 | 11:10

Amid high-profile bids — and battles — for power in New York congressional districts, a quieter race is unfolding in Manhattan, one that doesn’t come about all too often.

Judges serving the county in Surrogate’s Court, where locals typically turn to resolve issues relating to wills, estates, guardianships and, as of late, some LGBTQ+ legal matters, preside for 14-year terms, capped when judges turn 70. For Nora Anderson, one of Manhattan’s two surrogates since 2009, it’s time to retire.

Now, three Democratic candidates — Elba Rose Galvan, Hilary Gingold and Verley Brown — are vying for the voter-decided seat. Whoever emerges victorious from the primary on June 28 will likely go on to win the position.

Elba Rose Galvan — “Patience And Sensitivity”

Elba Rose Galvan, a lawyer of over 25 years, grew up as the “mediator” in her family of five siblings (now, she has three kids of her own, plus “dozens of nieces and nephews”). “That takes patience and sensitivity and, for sure, compassion,” she said of bridging interpersonal divides. It’s partly why she feels prepared to tackle family legal disputes in Manhattan’s Surrogate’s Court.

Since 2017, she’s worked as a Surrogate’s Court “referee” in Brooklyn, performing, she told Our Town, “a lot of the things you associate with a judge” — from writing decisions and conducting hearings to holding settlement conferences. She’s also worked as a law clerk to U.S. District Court Judge Analisa Torres and New York Civil Court Judge Laura Johnson and previously worked as an appellate attorney and litigator.

As a former president of the Puerto Rican Bar Association, and at the forefront of a handful of other organizations and boards, she’s honed leadership skills. “When you have people working together, how can we maximize their efforts?” she asked. Regarding the new role she’s angling for, “you have to unite all those different departments, the many departments that make up Surrogate’s Court,” she said, “and your guiding light, your North Star, is service to the public.”

Campaigning, on the other hand, has been a “totally new experience” — and a big undertaking, collecting signatures and answering voters’ many questions. “This is sort of a love letter, my love letter to New York,” Galvan said. “Because it’s an incredible amount of work.”

Hilary Gingold — “A Lot Of Relief And A Lot Of Joy”

Legal negotiations don’t always die when people do — and time is often still of the essence. That’s why Hilary Gingold, a Civil Court judge since 2018 and longtime lawyer, would approach Surrogate’s Court with the goal of “triaging” cases and issuing guidance “from the bench.”

“We have to be able to go in, and from day one, assess what the needs are and answer them expeditiously,” she told Our Town.

For 25 years as a lawyer, Gingold worked on trusts, estates and guardianships. In 2011, she started as a principal law clerk for Supreme Court justices, eventually becoming a Civil Court judge herself — and tackling backlog cases along the way. During the pandemic, she brought 2,300 such cases to a close. “They didn’t ask every judge to do that,” she said. “They asked me.”

Now, Gingold, who started her career as a social worker helping seniors and those with disabilities grasp housing and benefits, finds herself back in a familiar setting on the campaign trail, visiting senior centers. “Seniors and old people are often overlooked,” she said.

Surrogate’s Court, Gingold explained, isn’t so widely known among younger crowds. “I don’t wish anybody to experience it before they actually have to,” she said. “But I don’t believe that the experience has to be excruciating.” In some cases, like for same-sex couples seeking a surrogate to have a child, it’s far from it. “You can get a lot of relief and a lot of joy when you go to court,” she said, “believe it or not.”

Verley Brown — “I Know What People Go Through”

For Verley Brown, an immigrant, father and lawyer, being able to relate to those one serves is crucial. As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, he’d bring an intimate level of understanding to cases in that arena. “It’s important to be able to identify with people and with their particular concerns when they come before you in court,” he told Our Town. “I’m uniquely positioned to do just that.”

In other ways, too, he’s prepared for the gravity of the position; The death of his daughter has imbued Brown with compassion for those stepping foot into Surrogate’s Court. “I’ve experienced a lot,” he said. “I know what people go through.”

For many, Brown explained, the COVID-19 pandemic has meant a sooner acquaintance with Surrogate’s Court than usual. But it’s also brought about the ability for cases to be handled online, which Brown believes can help address “inordinate delays” lamented by voters on the campaign trail. If elected, he’d aim to further address a slower-than-desirable pace by training staff to differentiate between cases that are “uncontested” and those that are “contested,” or more complex.

For over 13 years, Brown has developed legal expertise in trusts and estates. Before becoming a lawyer, he also served as a senior clerk in Bronx County Surrogate’s Court — and feels confident in the setting he hopes, now in a different borough and with a different title, to which he might return. “It’s essentially my home,” he said.

“You can get a lot of relief and a lot of joy when you go to court, believe it or not.” Hilary Gingold