Candidates Vye to Fill Surrogate Court Vacancy

Photo courtesy of ILCAMPAIGN.

Ulster Surrogate Court Judge Mary M. Work began her second term in January 2015 and will now be stepping down as she reaches the age of 70, the state’s mandatory judicial retirement age.

Surrogate Court typically handles matters involving estates, wills, trusts, guardianships and adoption; the position pays $174,000 a year and is served in 10 year terms.

In order to serve on this court, a judge must be a state and city resident at least 18 years old with a minimum of 10 years expereince in the judicial and law field.

Two Democrats are vying for the position; Kingston based lawyer Sharon A. Graff, former Rosendale Town Justice Sara McGinty and Republican candidate Ulster County Assistant District Attorney Peter Matera.

Attorney and Esopus Town Councilman Kyle Barnett was previously in the race as a Republican candidate but decided to suspend his campaign in the interest of party unity.

“I think it’s going to be a tough year for Republicans, candidly, and I just didn’t want to do anything that was really going to definitively prevent either one of us from winning general elections,” he said.

Sharon A. Graff

Graff practices law with her husband Michael Graff and father-in-law Wayne Graff at Graff Law LLC. She has represented individuals, estates and businesses in a wide variety of cases for 18 years and describes her experience with civil law to be very comprehensive.

“Because you don’t choose when you die,” Graff said. “Death doesn’t wait for a convenient time, just about any type of civil legal issue that exists out there in life, can become an issue in Surrogate Court.”

According to Graff, Work is an experienced, passionate and hard-working judge who is leaving big shoes to fill and Graff believes she has the heart to do so.

“I know that this is my calling,” said Graff. “It’s a passion for me; I enforce the law because this is what I am meant to do.”

Sara McGinty 

McGinty served as Town Justice for eight years. She has been a lawyer for 32 years, and for the past 20 her office has focused largely on elder law, wills, trust and estate administration. She has also worked with Kingston Housing Authority for the past six years.

When asked about her interest in the position, she spoke of a case she had lost that she described as heartbreaking and a “tremendous injustice;” the case was not an Ulster Surrogate Court case.

“I just thought that it was time for me to try this process from the other side and maybe I could do a better job,” McGinty said. “Maybe I could have more of an impact as a judge rather than serving clients in Surrogate Court.”

McGinty believes that her ability to communicate with people sets her apart from the rest of the candidates.

“A judge’s basic job no matter what the court is, is to make sure that everyone in the case, from the clients to the lawyers, all understand the basis for your decision,” McGinty said. “I think that my clients would tell you that I take special aim to educate them so they feel confident about decisions they are making and I think that helps me be a better judge.”

Peter Matera 

Matera has been practicing law since 1986 and has practiced in almost every court in Ulster County with the majority of his work being in Surrogate Court. He has also served as Assistant District Attorney for a little over 29 years.

“I have been protecting the rights of victims as a prosecutor, I’ve been protecting the rights of my clients as an attorney, so it’s a smooth transition into what I hope to be doing soon,” he said.

In cases of estate matters, Matera is often able to bring families together in order to prevent animosity from growing and that is something he hopes to continue to do should he be elected.

“I’ve also seen a lot of good judges that also go down that line,” he said. “They are able to bring people together and that’s what I want to be able to do when it’s possible.”

Matera hopes to implement electronic filing to the court in order to save time and money. Additionally, he wants to create a volunteer committee of practicing attorneys in Ulster Surrogate Court to provide advice and assistants to small estates.

Although Matera has experience in various courts, it is Surrogate Court that he is most passionate about. According to Matera, he has been asked to run for other judgeships, but turned them down due to a lack of interest.

“My interest wasn’t in becoming a judge, it was in becoming this judge,” he said.

The primaries will be held on Tuesday, Sept. 13 and the general election on Tuesday, Nov. 8.