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Surrogate Court candidate Tara Scully proposes judicial selection reform

Republican Tara Scully, left, and Democrat Theresa Whelan

Republican Tara Scully, left, and Democrat Theresa Whelan are candidates for Suffolk surrogate judge. Credit: Composite photos: Richard T. Slatery, left; James Escher

Surrogate Court candidate Tara Scully has proposed a series of changes to New York's judicial selection process that she said would put less control in the hands of political leaders.

Scully's plan, which would require state legislation, would make judicial contests nonpartisan, introduce primaries for state Supreme Court justices — who currently are selected by party delegates — and allow members of the judiciary to run for "retention elections" instead of going back to party leaders for nominations.

"We must have judicial reform to change the way we select judges in this state so that the power is in the hands of voters rather than a handful of party bosses,” Scully, 41 of Setauket, said in a statement.

Supporters of her opponent Theresa Whelan shot back that Scully, who already has the Republican line, is in no position to suggest a more equitable selection process because Scully also wants the Democratic line in November, which would deprive voters of a competitive election.

Suffolk Democratic Chairman Rich Schaffer, who is backing Whelan, 56, of Wading River, said the changes have nothing to do with the Surrogate Court's responsibilities.

"She has no business talking about giving a choice to voters," Schaffer said in a statement, referring to Scully. "If she wants to address state policy in Albany, she should have run" for state office.

Whelan, through a campaign manager, declined to comment.

Scully, a Republican and former president of the Suffolk Women's Bar Association, is running in the Sept. 13 Democratic primary against Whelan, a Democrat and supervising judge of the Suffolk County Family Court. Whelan also is a former president of the Suffolk Women's Bar Association.

The two also will face off in the November election, where Whelan has the Independence Party line and Scully has the Republican, Green and Reform party lines. Conservative Deborah Poulos is on the ballot on the Conservative line, although she could be replaced after the primary, according to Suffolk Board of Election officials.

The $208,000-a-year Surrogate Court position oversees wills and estates of people who die, unclaimed property of those who die without wills, as well as guardianships and adoptions. The position is considered a powerful source of patronage because of the contracts a Surrogate Court judge can give out.

Scully entered the Surrogate Court race in July on the last possible day, citing a cross-endorsement deal in which Conservative District Court Judge Marian Tinari — the wife of Conservative Party Chairman Frank Tinari — received the Democratic nomination. Tinari later dropped out of the race, and Schaffer replaced her with Whelan.

Scully said that since 2002, 19 Suffolk judicial races had a candidate endorsed by all parties, meaning voters effectively had no choice.

Scully said New York and 11 other states use partisan elections to select most judges. Nonpartisan elections would require candidates to run without any party affiliation. Scully has proposed creating voter primaries for state Supreme Court justices, who are currently selected by party delegates at judicial nominating conventions.

She also wants retention elections for judges and justices, rather than having incumbents run against another candidate. Under Scully's proposal, voters would decide whether a judge should be returned to the bench. If they're not retained, it would then become an open seat.

"Qualified judges who have performed well should not have to go back to political party leaders to get their permission to run for re-election," she said.

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