The race for county surrogate pits Peter Matera of Esopus against Democratic nominee Sara McGinty and Sharon Graff of Rosendale. McGinty defeated Graff in the Democratic primary, but Graff remains on the ballot with the Independence, Working Families, Green and Women’s Rights candidate. Matera also carries the Conservative, Independence and Reform party banners.
An Ulster County Bar Association screening committee has rated Matera, 55, “highly qualified” and McGinty, 58, and Graff, 45, “qualified” for the office they seek. Previously, a state judicial screening panel rated Matera “qualified” and McGinty “not qualified.” Graff did not submit to the voluntary review.
Surrogate court handles civil cases involving wills, trusts and the appointment of guardians for persons unable to handle their own affairs.
Peter Matera, Republican candidate for surrogate judge, has stood “before all kinds of judges” over a 30-year career as an assistant district attorney in criminal cases and in private practice in surrogate and supreme courts.
“I’ve seen a lot of good ones, a few great ones and a few I wasn’t pleased with,” he said. “I think I’ve learned something from all of them.”
But first was his family. “My father taught me to treat people with respect and that’s what I’ve learned from the good judges,” he said. “Everyone who comes before you deserves respect, regardless of the circumstances.”
Former county surrogate Joseph Traficanti who retired as an upstate administrative judge, advised Matera the role of judge does not carry special privileges.
“Her told me the robes do not come with a crown,” Matera said. “I told him I understood that.” Traficanti, a Republican now retired, is endorsing Matera.
Matera said his 30 years as a single practioner informs him to the kind of judge he plans to be. “Having sat with clients in very trying times, I see myself as a fence-mender,” he said, “and that means respect for all sides.”
Democrats Graff and McGinty, in separate interviews before the September primary election, 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. “Fairness is for referees. Justice is much harder to do. It takes wisdom and life experience, not just legal experience.”
Matera, who said he has represented clients in surrogate court in “hundreds of cases,” has offered a broad platform to allow the tribunal to better serve its constituents.
“Given proper deliberation, I believe that justice delayed is sometimes justice denied has a basis,” he said, “particularly in cases involving family disputes. Problems tend to grow and fester if they sit. I’ve seen very good justices nip these things in the bud.”
Matera subscribes to emailing of court documents and other modernization of systems virtually unchanged since the 20th century.
He would appoint a standing committee of lawyers and lay persons to advise the court on a regular basis. “If I’m the judge, I’m going to want that feedback,” he said.
Matera supports outreach “to the degree that I can educate the public that the court exists and its function. A lot of people don’t have a grasp of what it does,” he said.
Ten year term
Matera resides in Esopus with his wife Jennifer and their two school age children.
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.
Term of office for surrogate court is 10 years. Starting salary is $119,000 year which rises to $170,000 after two years when surrogates become eligible to sit in county court and state Supreme Court.
Editor’s note: Since Graff and McGinty were interviewed during their primary, in fairness, Matera is given additional coverage herein.