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Regional Archives The Altamont Enterprise, October 21, 2010

Surrogate’s Court race
Two New Scotlanders vie for county judgeship

By Saranac Hale Spencer

ALBANY COUNTY — Three candidates are on the ballot for Surrogate’s Court judge after incumbent Cathryn Doyle won a heated Democratic primary as well as securing the Independence and Conservative lines.  Margaret Adkins, who got the Republican Party’s endorsement early this year, didn’t face a primary on that line.  Helena Heath-Roland, who challenged Doyle in September’s primary, will appear on the Working Families Party line.

Heath-Roland declined to be interviewed, saying that the primary race was a “valuable experience” and that she is “looking forward to future opportunities” while focusing on her work as a city court judge in Albany.

The Surrogate’s Court handles estates and adoptions, with one presiding judge in Albany County.

This year, Doyle raised about $64,000 and Adkins raised about $9,000, according to the New York State Board of Elections.


Cathryn Doyle, who has spent her career in the Surrogate’s Court, is seeking a second 10-year term on the bench.  Before she was elected in 2000, she served as the chief clerk of the court for 20 years, starting the year after she was admitted to the bar.

A separate court to handle estates is important, she said, because in standard cases there is a living plaintiff and a living defendant, but in managing estates, there are living heirs and a decedent whose wishes must be honored.  A judge has to ensure that the rights of the deceased are upheld, which takes a different approach, she said.

Over the last century, campaigns came in waves seeking to eradicate patronage from New York City area Surrogate’s Courts, with one of the most notable critics being the late senator Robert Kennedy.

In the counties of New York City — including Kings, Richmond, New York, Bronx, and Queens — the surrogate judge appoints the public administrator, thereby allowing for political favoritism.  In Albany County, the county comptroller, Michael Conners, acts as the public administrator.

In a flagrant instance of cronyism recently, Kings County Surrogate Judge Michael Feinberg was removed from his post after the state’s Commission on Judicial Conduct found that he had appointed a long-time friend and political ally to be counsel to the public administrator.  Feinberg routinely paid his friend 8 percent of the total value of a given estate, without consideration for the amount of work involved.

Asked how Feinberg’s behavior reflects on the Surrogate’s Court as a whole, Doyle said, “It’s got nothing to do with what goes on here.”

In 2005, Doyle was censured by the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct because of testimony she gave regarding her involvement with the Thomas J. Spargo Legal Expense Trust.

Spargo, a former New York State Supreme Court Justice, was found guilty of two felony charges in 2009. His case was rooted in a 1999 race for town justice in Berne, during which the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct said that Spargo spent money on food, drinks, or tokens to influence Berne residents to vote for him. He initially challenged the commission in federal court, arguing its allegation had to do with the exercise of his First Amendment liberties. He lost his challenge on appeal.

In the 2009 case, the prosecution convinced the jury that Spargo had orchestrated a plan to solicit funds from lawyers with cases before him in order to pay his own legal bills.

“Clearly [Doyle’s] misguided effort to minimize her rather limited involvement in the Spargo trust was far more serious than the acts she may have wished to conceal,” says the decision.

“I think a censure is a great learning experience to teach you to be a better judge,” she said.  Of how whether or not it affects her credibility, Doyle said, “I don’t think it helps.  Does it have a negative impact?  I’m not sure.”

Doyle, who lives in New Scotland with her husband, Timothy, and their three sons, graduated from St. John’s College of St. John’s University in New York City with a degree in English before going on to Albany Law School.

Asked how the court can ensure that estates aren’t unreasonably diminished, Doyle said that she encourages families to get together and resolve things without litigation.  Sometimes litigation is necessary, she said, but it is usually hurt feeling, not legal issues, that need to be resolved.

No one issue is most frequent, Doyle said, but she has noticed a trend toward second and third marriages that produced children.  She concluded that, as society changes, litigation changes.

All the facets of personal lives come before the Surrogate’s Court, similar to family court, Doyle said, but the case work also requires an intellectual exercise.

“I really like the uniqueness of the court,” she said of Surrogate’s Court.


Margaret Adkins, a New Scotland town judge, got the Republican nod early this year but lost the Conservative Party line to Doyle by about 15 percent of the vote in September’s primary.

Maintaining a court to handle issues of estates and adoptions is important, Adkins said, because it “allows for individual attention” and separates those cases from criminal and civil matters.

Sitting on the town court bench “prepares you in respect for the law and people coming before you,” Adkins said earlier this year of her experience over the last six years — she was first elected in 2003.

Adkins was given a rating of “qualified” for the surrogate’s post by the Third Department of the Independent Judicial Election Qualification Commissions this year, as was Doyle.  Murray Carr, who lost the Democratic primary, was also rated as “qualified” while Heath-Roland was rated “not qualified.”

The rating process is based on an evaluation of the “professional ability; character, independence and integrity; reputation for fairness and lack of bias; and temperament, including courtesy and patience,” demonstrated by the candidate, according to the rules of the chief administrative judge — participation by judges seeking election is voluntary.  Since the commissions were established in 2007, the Third Department, which covers three judicial districts, including the third, where Albany in located, has rated one other judge, in 2009, as “not qualified.”

After September’s primary, the Albany County Bar Association conducted its rating system, which Executive Director Barbara Davis likened to the state system, where candidates submit answers to a set of standard questions before appearing in front of the committee for an interview.  The bar association has been rating judges on a scale of outstanding, well qualified, qualified, and not qualified for decades, Davis said.  Participation is voluntary and this year Doyle and Adkins took part.  Doyle was given a rating of “well qualified” and Adkins was rated as “qualified.”  Candidates are most often rated as “qualified,” Davis said.

Asked about Michael Feinberg’s conduct and its reflection on the court, Adkins said that judges in any court face “tremendous responsibility,” which she takes seriously, participating in regular ethics’ training.  People lose confidence in the court when those on the bench act poorly, she said, adding that, in a much broader sense, “I think we’re in crisis.”  She referred to the condition of the state as whole and concluded, “I wish people did better for each other.”

Of how she would protect estates from being unreasonably diminished, Adkins said, “I’d follow the law.”

Adkins, who lives in New Scotland with her husband, David, and their two children, completed her undergraduate work at Syracuse University and got her law degree from Albany Law School.

Her experience handling wills and estate work in private practice is suited to the surrogate judge post, Adkins said, and she has enjoyed her time substituting in the Albany City Court.  Her post as a town judge is part-time, she said, concluding, “I like what I do and would like to do more of it.”

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