civil court haitians
This month, voters in Brooklyn and citywide will decide which judges to send to the civil court and surrogate's court. Photo by Sam Bojarski

When a tenant falls behind on rent, as thousands have during the COVID-19 pandemic, the civil court judge who hears the case has significant discretion to influence how the matter is settled.

“They have the power to provide the litigants with an extended payment plan, for example, rather than saying you have 30 days to come up with all the money,” said Pavita Krishnaswamy, litigation director for NYC Legal Services.

The city’s civil court system technically includes housing court. Housing court judges are appointed separately, but other civil judges can hear housing cases when needed, Krishnaswamy said. 

In primaries this month, New Yorkers who head to the polls will cast ballots for the city’s mayor, one of 51 council seats and other municipal offices. They will also elect judges to the civil court and Kings County Surrogate’s Court. 

The judges’ authority to decide on the fate of people’s day-to-day lives at a basic level is one reason voters should pay attention to who gets to sit on a particular bench in the upcoming elections. When it comes to voting in judicial elections, legal experts said voters should choose a justice who can preside impartially, with patience and an even-keeled demeanor. 

Cultural competency is also an important consideration, said Sherbune Paul, president of the Haitian American Lawyers Association of New York (HALANY). 

In Surrogate’s Court, for example, judges have discretion over guardianships, or decisions on who gets legal custody of an elderly person, Paul said. 

“You may want a judge who can understand that the person you’d like to have placed as a guardian should have some knowledge of the Haitian culture, as far as speaking the language or knowing the food,” said Paul, of Canarsie. “You should look for [judges] that reflect your interests, especially for the Haitian community, you may want to think about someone that understands our culture.” 

Judges on the Surrogate’s Court handle cases involving wills, estates and adoptions. Civil court judges handle landlord-tenant disputes and small claims up to $25,000, among other cases. 

Upcoming judicial races

Citywide, 10 judicial seats are up for election, according to Ballotpedia. Four are civil court seats with jurisdiction over Haitian enclaves in Brooklyn and Queens. In Queens, attorney Cassandra Aimée Johnson is running to sit as a Civil Court Judge for the 4th Municipal District, which covers such southeast Queens neighborhoods as Queens Village and Jamaica. 

The lone race for Brooklyn Surrogate’s Court features Haitian-American Judge Dweynie Esther Paul, who currently sits on Kings County Civil Court for the 2nd Municipal District, which covers parts of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights. 

If elected, Paul would serve for 14 years as a Surrogate’s Court judge. Civil Court judges in New York City serve 10-year terms. Unlike the elections for mayor, council and other city offices, voters will not use ranked-choice voting to select their choices for judicial seats, according to the city Board of Elections

For many immigrant New Yorkers, the judge who presides over their case can have a make-or-break impact on their lives. That’s why having a diverse slate of judges from a variety of backgrounds is important, experts say.

Certain offenses, like physical altercations or driving while intoxicated, can be heard in either civil or criminal court, said Stephanie Delia, an immigration attorney based in Queens Village. 

“A civil court judge who is aware of the immigration implications of convictions will likely allow the [defendant] to plead to something that won’t affect the immigration status of the respondent,” said Stephanie Delia, an immigration attorney based in Queens Village. 

Judges on Surrogate’s Court have a reputation for exclusively handling the estates and wills of wealthy residents. But Krishnaswamy said that isn’t always the case. As a former attorney on the NYC Legal Services HIV Unit, she frequently went to court for low- and moderate-income clients who passed away without a will. 

Deed theft particularly affects homeowners of color, the state attorney general’s office has said. Unscrupulous developers and others have scammed people into signing over the deed to their home for vastly lower prices than the market rate. About 45% of the complaints received in New York City between 2014 and 2019 came from Brooklyn, the office reported

The New York Times has reported that the practice is common in rapidly developing central Brooklyn neighborhoods. The two candidates for Kings County Surrogate’s Court – Supreme Court Judge Rosemarie Montalbano and Judge Paul – have discussed the importance of preventing deed theft during the campaign, per media reports. 

The transfer and sale of properties need approval from the courts, said Montalbano, in an interview. As judge, Montalbano said she would help facilitate educational sessions on estate planning, which could be run by the city Bar Association. 

“I could tell you that I will review each document and make sure that people are not being taken advantage of,” Montalbano said. “The Surrogate Court judge is the gatekeeper and has the power to say no, but you need to elect someone who understands this is happening, who’s going to take the time to review all those documents and not allow transfers that are against people’s interests.” 

Judge Paul did not respond to an email and phone call requesting comment, via her campaign website

“We’ve went to Surrogate’s Court to settle matters related to who would care for our clients’ children when they died,” Krishnaswamy said. “Those are important races for our client population, for low- and moderate income people.” 

Judicial races roundup 

Following is a list of judges who will appear on ballots in central Brooklyn and southeast Queens.

Kings County Surrogate’s Court Democratic primary – Voters choose 1 judge

Judge Dweynie Esther Paul

Paul was elected as a civil court judge in 2015, where she has served ever since. A Bedford-Stuyvesant resident, she studied immigration issues as a policy analyst for the New York State Comptroller’s Office. Her legal career involves stints as a law clerk in Baltimore City Circuit Court and as legal counsel for a Fortune 500 insurance company, according to her website

Judge Rosemarie Montalbano

Montalbano resides in Bushwick. In her 30-year legal career, her website indicates that she has worked as a civil court attorney, a law clerk in the Supreme Court, as a civil court judge from 2015-2019 and, most recently, as a Supreme Court justice since last year. 

Civil Court Kings County (Countywide) Democratic Primary – Voters choose 3 judges

Judge Heela Capell

Capell, who serves on Housing Court, was born to immigrant Jewish parents in Brooklyn. Prior legal experience includes serving as an attorney for a real estate litigation firm, which she said on her website inspired her to become a judge. She was appointed to Housing Court after serving as a court attorney. 

Inga O’Neale

Born in the Caribbean to parents from Grenada, O’Neale has lived and worked in Brooklyn for the past 18 years. Her experience in the law includes stints as a court attorney for the Kings County Supreme Court. She later advanced to the role of principal law clerk in the court system, her website states. 

Casilda Elena Roper-Simpson

An immigrant from Panama raised in Crown Heights, Roper-Simpson was part of the legal team that represented Abner Louima in 1997, per her website. She has 25 years of experience in private practice, handling criminal, personal injury civil rights cases and more. A teacher and community servant, she is also an adjunct professor at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, New York. 

Judge Sharen Hudson

(Facebook screenshot)

Since her election in 2011, Hudson has served as a Supreme Court judge in New York. Prior to serving as a justice, Hudson was a court attorney in Kings County Civil, Housing and Criminal courts. She also served as a principal law clerk for the Supreme Court. 

Civil Court Kings County, 2nd Municipal District (parts of Bedford Stuyvesant, Crown Heights), Democratic primary – Voters choose 1 judge

Lola Waterman

A central Brooklyn resident, Waterman has worked as a law clerk and as an attorney in private practice. She has specialized in immigration, elder law and estate planning, per her website

Lisa Lewis

Raised in Crown Heights, Lewis has worked as an attorney for city Council District 37’s matrimonial unit, as a legal aid in the Criminal Appeals Bureau. She also worked as a clerk in state Supreme Court, per media reports.  

Marva Brown 

A resident of Crown Heights, Brown has worked for the Legal Aid Society in Brooklyn since 2008, representing clients at all stages of criminal proceedings. She has done similar work with the Legal Aid Society in Nassau County. According to her website, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams appointed her to serve on Community Board 8 in 2019, where she still serves. 

Civil Court Queens County (Countywide) Democratic Primary – Voters choose 2 judges

Michael Goldman 

If elected, Goldman will become the first openly gay judge elected in Queens County. Born and raised in Queens, he has more than 25 years of legal experience, mostly in the New York City court system. He values ruling with compassion and empathy and treating each person in the courtroom as a person, not a number, per his website.  

Andrea Ogle

Andrea Ogle (right) with Consul General of Guyana to New York, Barbara Atherly. Photo by Tangerine Clarke

Born in Guyana, Ogle has represented indigent adults and children as a family lawyer since 1999. In media reports, Ogle has noted that a diverse bench can help the public see themselves reflected in the legal system. Ogle also said she remains committed to upholding the twin values of compassion and justice. 

Soma Syed

Born in Bangladesh, Syed is president of the Queens County Women’s Bar Association. A self-described activist attorney, she has volunteered to support people with housing, immigration, unemployment and other issues in Queens, per her website

Civil Court Queens County, 4th Municipal District (southeast Queens – Jamaica, Queens Village) Democratic Primary – Voters choose 1 judge

Cassandra Aimée Johnson 

A resident of southeast Queens, Johnson started out in private practice representing Caribbean clients in Brooklyn and Queens. After two years, she moved on to the litigation department of the NYC Human Resources Administration. Johnson, whose mother immigrated from Haiti, works as a referee of the Supreme Court of Queens, conducting trials and settlement conferences, according to her website

Devian Shondel Daniels

Daniels appears to have a limited online presence. But social media profiles for her indicate that the Queens-based attorney has worked as an attorney in Kings County Family Court, as a community counselor in multiple council districts and as a volunteer arbitrator in Queens County Civil Court. 

Sam is a reporter for The Haitian Times and a 2020 Report for America fellow. He has covered Haiti and its diaspora since 2018. His work has also appeared in USA Today, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and...

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