Over 40,000 enrolled Ulster County Democrats will choose between two attorneys, Sharon Graff and Sara McGinty, in Tuesday’s primary to succeed retiring surrogate judge Mary Work next January. Typical primary turnout is in the 15 to 20 percent range.
Hailing from different ends of Rosendale, Graff, the party’s unofficial nominee, will face challenger Sara McGinty in the September 13 primary. Graff also has the Working Families Party nomination. Term of office is ten years.
The winner will face Republican nominee Peter Matera of Esopus in November. Matera will also appear on the Conservative, Independence and Reform party lines in the general election. A former assistant district attorney, Matera has practiced in surrogate for more than 30 years.
There is also a Democratic primary for state committeeperson in the 103rd Assembly District between Karen Markisenis of Kingston, who won the county Democratic committee endorsement over incumbent Judy Hakam, and Kelleigh McKenzie of Rosendale, a Bernie Sanders delegate. The 103rd district, which is represented by Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, includes 13 of 20 towns in the county and the city of Kingston.
Typical of presidential years, Democratic enrollment has surged (by 3000 enrollees) in the past year to a record 40,374. Republican enrollment has increased by only 239, according to the board of elections, to 27,673. Persons of no party (non-enrolled), the second largest voting bloc, decreased by 197 to 33,511. Collective minor party enrollments constitute less ten percent of registrants.
Democrats Graff and McGinty, in separate interviews, cited their extensive experience in surrogate court. The court, which deals in civil cases, touches the lives of many people.
“You may never sue anybody or be sued, and, hopefully, never be prosecuted, but almost everybody knows somebody who has passed away,” said McGinty.
“Surrogate court is where regular people or their estates wind up,” said Graff.
McGinty said litigants and their families “need to come away with the belief they have been heard, regardless of the decision of the court.”
“Not every day is going to be a day when everyone is glad you reached a certain decision,” said Graff. “You at least have to be sure you have done your very best and applied the law correctly.”
“We are there to dispense justice, which is a helluva lot more than fairness,” said McGinty, who has sat in town court. “Farness is for referees. Justice is much harder to do. It takes wisdom and life experience, not just legal experience.”
A judge’s job is to make sure that decisions are made very clear in layman’s language, McGinty added. “In court, you’re not just talking to lawyers. Often, there are clients there and they want to know you heard everything and everybody and that you heard it in an open and unbiased way. That’s how people come to feel they’ve been dealt with justly and that they really did have their day in court.”
The court handles cases involving contested wills, or the estates of those who die without a will, probate and the like. The court also assigns guardians and administrators. Judges on occasion preside at trial before six-person civil trials.
After two years as surrogate, judges become eligible to serve as acting state Supreme Court judges. Those assignments produce salary adjustments between higher and lower courts. At present, surrogate judges start at $119,000 a year, which rises to $170,000 after two years. Supreme Court judges are paid $180,000 a year; surrogates are paid a per-diem basis when sitting on that bench. A state salary study commission has recommended raises of up to 40 percent for the judiciary, the state legislature and other elected and appointed state officials. The legislature is expected to vote on those recommendations before the end of the year.
McGinty, 58, a single practioner, has lived in Rosendale with her husband, family court judge Tony McGinty, since 1992. Married 32 years, they have three adult children. Graff, 45, has been a lawyer in Ulster County since 2001. She practices with her husband Michael Graff, married in 2006, at the Graff law firm, formally Wilkie and Graff, in Kingston.
Graff holds a bachelor degree in English from state University of New York at Buffalo and is a graduate of its law school. She was admitted to the bar in 1998.
McGinty graduated cum laude from Bernard College in 1979 and from the Benjamin Cardozo School of law cum laude in 1984. She opened her Main Street Rosendale law practice in1994.
Graff, a former non-enrolled voter, joined the Democratic Party last October, missing the deadline to vote in the primary by a few days. McGinty, a former Rosendale town justice, has been active in Democratic politics for over 20 years.
The self-imposed judicial canon of ethics places strict restrictions on judges and judicial candidates. Personal exchanges between candidates are rare and rules of ethics forbid the taking of positions on issues that may be heard in court.
Primary polls are open from noon to nine p.m.