Margarita López Torres
Surrogate's Court (incumbent)
Q: Why are you qualified to be a judge.
A: My 40 years in the law demonstrate that I possess the requisite legal scholarship, passion for the law, judicial demeanor, work ethic and independence to merit re-election to the Surrogate’s Court. From my years as a staff and supervising attorney with legal services prior to becoming a judge I saw the difficulties and challenges pro se litigants face, and acted from a belief that low income individuals not only should be represented, but should also receive professional, quality counsel. As a judge, I have continued to be concerned that the legal needs of so many members of our community go unmet. For example, in 2000 I authored a letter in the New York Law Journal co-signed by my colleagues urging a compensation increase for 18-B panel attorneys, noting that their diminished ranks had severely impeded the administration of justice for the indigent. My testimony was extensively cited in N.Y. County Lawyers' Ass'n v. State, 196 Misc. 2d 761 (Sup. Ct. N.Y. Co. 2003) , which ordered an increase in 18-B compensation, and the New York County Lawyers Association later honored me for my efforts on behalf of indigent litigants. While legal services programs must be expanded to achieve the goal of meaningful access to the court for all people, the courts must continue to embrace programs that provide assistance to the self-represented, and to further this I initiated, in partnership with the Brooklyn Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project, a program in which volunteer attorneys provide assistance and guidance to users of the Surrogate’s Court. More recently, my efforts brought about the opening and staffing of a Surrogate’s Court Help Center, staffed full-time by an attorney, to assist self-represented litigants. Agency representation, both at the Corporation Counsel and as the lawyer in charge of the legal division representing the Child Welfare Administration, gave me perspective on the challenges agencies face in carrying out often difficult mandates and implementing public policy initiatives. In that capacity I endeavored to ensure that families and children were provided with mandated services both to protect children and, where possible, remain with their families. With over 26 years on the bench, I am the only judge in the City to have presided in the Civil, Family, Criminal, and Surrogate’s Courts, and am the most senior Surrogate in the metropolitan region. As such, I have a wide breadth of experience and knowledge of the law, and a record of competence and integrity. I have presided over hundreds of jury and bench trials. Much of this work has involved high-volume courts handling critical and emotionally laden issues, where judges must determine issues of who gets to keep or lose their personal liberty, their home, their children, and their inheritance. I have expertise in sorting out challenging situations and resolving complex legal issues. My decisions demonstrate commitment and respect for legal precedent while satisfying the imperative of doing justice. I have also been a member for nearly a decade of the Office of Court Administration Surrogate’s Court Advisory Committee, which is charged with recommending legislation and rule changes relevant to the Surrogate’s Court. I have been particularly involved with drafting proposed legislation that would make major changes in SCPA Article 17-A proceedings. These proceedings concern the appointment of guardians of the person or property of those who are asserted to be developmentally disabled and unable to manage their affairs. I have a deep appreciation of the day-to-day challenges of trial judges, litigants and their counsel. In 2000, the Fund for Modern Courts wrote that it was “impressed by the level of respect and dignity in [my] courtroom, and by [my] concern for those appearing in it,” and that I was “fair and respectful to attorneys, defendants, jurors, courtroom personnel and the public.” I have a core belief that we cannot effectively do our job unless we have the respect of those who come before us. We earn that respect, in turn, only by respecting the dignity of those who come before us, and by respecting and fairly applying the laws we are bound to uphold. But, perhaps more importantly, the public must have confidence that judges, once on the bench, are independent, impartial, and blind to partisan or parochial concerns. I bring to the Court my dedication to judicial independence. See, "Blazing a Trail, and Following Her Own Sense of What’s Right," N.Y. Times, January 25, 2008.
Q: What interventions and resources do you believe are required to ensure that all judges and court personnel competently and respectfully serve and work with the LGBTQ community? What steps will you take to secure the necessary resources to implement the interventions?
A: Courts must be places where all persons of different race, ethnicity, persuasion and gender orientation are welcomed. There must not be anything, either in the physical environment, or substantively that would result in making anyone uncomfortable or not welcomed in the courts. As a judge in the Criminal Court, I ensured that no one was made the subject of derision because of her or his gender identity and I ensured that defendants were treated with respect and addressed as they wished to be identified. As a Surrogate's Court judge, at the very beginning of my term I removed an individual as the supervising clerk of the adoption department who was demanding additional and inappropriate documentation from same gender adopting couples. As other states began to recognize the marriage equality of same gender couples, I directed that these couples not be required to provide more information, documents or have to summon non-distributees in order to establish themselves as decedent's surviving spouses. Courts should mirror the rich diversity of the community. I have filled positions in the court on the basis of qualifications while taking into account the significant and enriching role that diversity plays. I was for many years an advocate for marriage equality; indeed, in 2008 I traveled to Massachusetts to perform the wedding of a family member and her long-time partner (both Brooklyn residents). On July 24, 2011 -- the day the Marriage Equality Act became the law --I proudly participated in an event sponsored by then-Borough President Marty Markowitz at Borough Hall, where wedding cake, champagne and marriage vows were made available to any couple who wished to get married. I gathered with a small group of judges, who with big smiles, were available to officiate over the marriage of any couple who requested it.