On Friday, Surrogate Court Judge Harriet Thompson was suspended by the New York State Office of Court Administration (“OCA”), the entity that oversees court functions throughout the state. "Based on serious allegations of bias and discrimination, confirmed by an investigation by our Inspector General, Surrogate Court Judge Harriet Thompson has been relieved of her case docket, effective immediately, and the matter referred to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct for further action as they deem appropriate,” said a spokesman for OCA.
As If 2021 Wasn't Enough . . .
The past two years saw mounting problems for the already-overwhelmed King’s County Surrogate’s Court. COVID-19 brought cases to a standstill in March 2020. The court struggled but ultimately rose to the challenge of implementing efiling and video appearances, thus avoiding the dangers of crowded courthouses. However, Judge Thompson, one of two Surrogate's in Brooklyn, did not issue citations from approximately March 2020 to November 2021. Without these citations, parties to estate proceedings were unable to provide the necessary notice to commence those proceedings, meaning few new cases on Thompson's docket could be administered. The Judge and her staff were, however, addressing pending cases and emergency applications.
The other Surrogate, stalwart judge Margarita Lopez Torres, has been issuing citations since late 2020. Judge Lopez Torres, who was elected to two terms as Surrogate, is slated to retire at the end of the year. Surrogate-elect Rosemarie Montalbano will fill the seat and is greeted with great optimism by the trusts and estates community. However, as with all judges filling new positions, there will be a learning curve. Another rare bright spot is Patricia Halsey as Acting Chief Clerk, whose recent appointment is hoped by many to become permanent.
Kings County is the most populous county in New York and naturally has the most deaths and estate proceedings. Even before the pandemic, the Kings County Surrogate's Court was severely understaffed, with only about two-thirds of positions filled. As these issues mounted, the processing speed of estate applications in Brooklyn slowed severely. In some cases, applications at the clerk level have reportedly been sitting, unprocessed, between eight and eighteen months.
Amid the frustration of the Trusts and Estates Bar, the Brooklyn Bar Association convened with Judge Thompson earlier in the year to assess the scope of the issues and then requested assistance from the State’s Chief Administrative Judge to address the delays and staffing shortages. Shortly thereafter, Judge Thompson began issuing citations, at least one staff position was approved to be filled, and Kings County Administrative Judge Lawrence Knipel was appointed Acting Surrogate for the narrow purpose of issuing citations. The delays are not reported to be associated with Judge Thompson's suspension.
What Will the New Year Bring?
This afternoon, Deputy Chief Administrative Judge for NYC Courts, Hon. Deborah Kaplan, appointed Hon. Carol Robinson Edmead, Justice of the New York County Supreme Court, as Acting Surrogate of Kings County, effective immediately. Delays are still expected to mount as the Acting Surrogate takes over an already-backlogged docket. However, OCA has quickly taken this critical first step.