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Kings County Surrogate’s Court judge eyes primary victory

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Margarita López Torres isn’t ready to hang up her robe just yet.

First elected to the Kings County Civil Court in 1992, re-elected a decade later, and then elevated to Surrogate’s Court in 2005, López Torres has weathered her fair share bruising political strife — more than she would care to admit.

But this time will be different, according to the veteran Brooklyn judge, who faces a contested Democratic primary on June 25.

Having run her last campaign as an anti-establishment insurgency, López Torres now has the political machine behind her, enjoying the backing of party boss Frank Seddio, along with the public support of the Borough President and 12 of Brooklyn’s 16 city councilmembers.

Her ingratiation with the local political bigwigs marks an extraordinary turnaround for López Torres, who found herself in exile a decade ago after she dared to cross the established political order in a move that ended in 2008 before the United States Supreme Court.

Then-Civil Court Justice López Torres had felt ready for a step up the judicial ladder — to the state Supreme Court. The promotion required the blessing of Vito Lopez, who then served as Chairman of the Kings County Democratic Party, which essentially chooses judges to get posts in the higher court at an annual judicial convention.

But López Torres never received the Supreme Court nod — a slight that she attributes to her rejecting an overture from the party chair.

“Vito insisted that I hire his daughter, who lacked experience,” said López Torres. “I refused.”

After being denied the promotion year-after-year, López Torres sued the state Board of Elections, arguing that the judicial convention model provided citizens no voice in the selection of state Supreme Court judges.

The case sparked a fervorous debate across the legal profession, rising through the court system, before it was eventually decided by the nation’s highest legal authority in favor of the status quo.

And while the decision was a massive blow to judicial reformers, it also came with massive personal costs to the plaintiff, who was essentially blackballed by the powerful interests whose authority she had questioned.

“There’s an expectation that the party leader can kind-of dictate who your staff will be. I think that’s interventi­on,” said López Torres. “And if you decline to do that — they have a long memory.”

Despite the personal pain that the losing effort brought her, the judge says she stands by the crusade.

“I still believe that the convention method of selecting judges is not the most democratic, for all the same reasons that were laid out in that Supreme Court case,” she said. “I testified in the Albany legislature about this. I fought very hard. Now, I think I’ve taken it as far as I could.”

And although she waved a white flag in the fight to reform the judicial selection process, López Torres remained undaunted by the entrenched system which viewed her as persona non grata, launching a campaign for Surrogate’s Court — which hears cases involving adoptions and the affairs of deceased person’s estates.

López Torres eked out a victory in that 2005 election, stunning naysayers who questioned the feasibility of an independent, renegade campaign.

Years later, as the dust of her previous political battles has settled, López Torres is adjusting to her unfamiliar place as the chosen favorite of the party — which is now led by Vito’s successor, Frank Seddio, who is himself a former surrogate judge.

“I’ve put distance between any political influence and the court,” she said. “And things have gotten better. Frank Seddio is a different person. He has never tried to influence my court — Not that I’m easily influenced.”

Now the barrier-breaking judge — who was the first Latinx judge in New York City, and the first Latinx Surrogate in New York State — hopes to turn her newfound insider status to secure her re-election to the Surrogate’s Court, a far-from guaranteed feat against current Civil-Court Judge Elena Baron, whose bid is back by Gary Tilzer, who managed López Torres’ 2005 campaign.

“I love what I do,” said López Torres. “I want to continue doing it.

Reach reporter Aidan Graham at agraham@schnepsmedia.com or by calling (718) 260–4577. Follow him at twitter.com/aidangraham95.
Updated 10:56 am, June 12, 2019
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