Court administrators have temporarily assigned a third surrogate in Brooklyn in an attempt to erase a backlog that sources say has grown as a result of the failure of the two Surrogates, Margarita López Torres (See Profile) and Diana Johnson (See Profile), to cooperate with one another.
As of late February, Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Bruce Balter (See Profile), who had been sitting in the criminal term's trial part, was assigned to Brooklyn Surrogate's Court to handle uncontested probate proceedings and uncontested letters of administration to allow estates to launch lawsuits.
So far, Balter has handled about 50 of the oldest cases and has another two that are expected to conclude in the coming weeks. The full extent of the backlog is still being determined by court officials.
In September 2012, in an earlier attempt to address the backlog, Michael Cipollino, chief clerk of the Suffolk County Surrogate's Court, began working with Brooklyn Surrogate's Court clerks two or three days a week to train on procedures and protocols in processing uncontested matters.
Sources attributed the backlog to the delays resulting from the Brooklyn clerks receiving conflicting instructions from the two surrogates how to handle matters, which lengthened processing times. The delays triggered complaints from practitioners, who brought the situation to the attention of former Chief Administrative Judge Ann Pfau (See Profile) and now Chief Administrative Judge A. Gail Prudenti (See Profile).
A number of sources familiar with the court said there is tension between López Torres and Johnson and the two do not get along. In 2005, López Torres beat Johnson by a slim margin in a hard-fought three-way primary. Johnson won her seat in 2007.
In a statement, López Torres said, "The cases that were referred to Justice Bruce Balter were uncontested matters that arose from conflicts affecting one of the surrogates in which she had to recuse herself. Justice Balter has disposed of some of these cases and Surrogates Johnson and López Torres have worked out an arrangement that will resolve this situation, obviating the need for the further involvement of Justice Balter."
"I can tell you we have a collegial relationship and are able to make decisions on matters necessary to the court," López Torres said in an interview.
Johnson did not respond to a request for comment.
Balter, the chair of the Brooklyn Bar Association's Surrogate's Court Committee and a one-time court attorney-referee in the Brooklyn Surrogate's Court, did not respond to a request for comment.