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OpinionEditorial

Newsday endorses Margaret Reilly for Surrogate's Court

Gavel.

Gavel. Photo Credit: Newsday, 2003 / Jim Peppler

We all will need the services of the Surrogate's Court.

When the time comes, however, most of us could be dead. So it's better to pay attention now and make the best choice for you and Nassau County.

This highly specialized court mostly oversees the processing of wills, or when none exists, overseeing the administration of an estate. If no one comes forward to handle the affairs of the deceased, the court chooses a lawyer for the task. The surrogate also processes adoptions and appoints guardians for people unable to care for themselves.

There is only one surrogate in Nassau and that judge serves a 10-year term. The seat is open this year because Judge Edward McCarty has reached mandatory retirement age.

Two well-respected and experienced state Supreme Court justices seek the job. Margaret C. Reilly, 51, of Oyster Bay, is the Republican nominee. Angela G. Iannacci, 55, of Manhasset, is the nominee of the Democrats.

The Newsday editorial board rarely endorses in judicial races, but for this race, we are making an exception.

There shouldn't be a Republican or Democratic way to administer justice. But as long as these judgeships are elected positions, and the Surrogate's Court is an especially powerful perch, there's a compelling need to keep watch.

The blatant patronage of yesteryear, when the party leader sent the surrogate judge a list of favored lawyers, no matter their skills, to handle estates and reap generous fees is gone. But the favors to the chosen few haven't gone away.

A recent Newsday investigation questioned the administration of an estate with no heirs by attorney Steven Schlesinger, a former powerhouse in Nassau's Democratic Party. In response, McCarty, who did not initially appoint Schlesinger but whose court had oversight of the case, demanded on Thursday that a full accounting be filed by Dec. 10. Schlesinger was administering the Gitenstein Foundation, which gave money to health-related causes and Jewish charities.

Among actions under review by the surrogate and the state attorney general is Schlesinger's donation of $250,000 to a foundation run by his poker partner, Gary Melius, the owner of Oheka Castle. The gift came two days before Schlesinger's 2014 wedding at Oheka.

"I don't want to be the surrogate; I want to be a friend of the surrogate," is an adage that hasn't gotten stale.

In the editorial board's 90-minute interview with the candidates, both Reilly and Iannacci recoiled at the notion of having any obligations to party leaders or their campaign donors. Both care deeply about serving the public with compassion. And both prioritized customer service and said the court must be more productive. For example, it now takes four to six weeks to obtain the necessary paperwork to take charge of an uncontested estate. Such delays are unacceptable. Reilly said the filings should be processed "right away, if not by the next day." Iannacci said no more than a week.

Reilly said it is time to end the era of the "gentleman's court" of congenial insiders. She regards herself as a "hands-on judge" who sits on the bench every day and reviews every case personally.

Iannacci, too, said she would lead by example to improve the court's operation. But she said she would need to see the workflow before determining whether daily open sessions were the best practice.

What best distinguishes the two candidates is their openness to try something new, to rattle the cage. Iannacci, who handles guardianships, gives the impression that she would keep working primarily with bar association-centric attorneys, the ones with whom she is most familiar.

While Iannacci agreed there could more transparency, such as posting online the names of attorneys awarded cases and their fees, she did not fully embrace the idea.

Reilly was more impressive in her determination to transform the Surrogate's Court. "There should be a way for us to open the courts and say, 'Come in,' " Reilly said. Her steely, no-nonsense resolve, combined with her strong sense that openness is key to accountability, is impressive.

Newsday endorses Reilly.

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