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President's Message | December 2018 Newsletter

We have reached the end of the year and prepare for the holiday season.  At my house we celebrate Christmas which happens to be my favorite holiday. As the youngest of four children, I have great memories of waking up extremely early on Christmas morning to see what presents were left under the tree.  This tradition became even more exciting when I had my own child.

He turned 10 this year and despite the fact that my husband told him this summer that “it’s us” to my secret delight, he’s still pretending to believe in Santa.  So, I look forward to another magical season filled with decorating, buying way too many gifts and listening to carols.  By the time this is published, I will also have celebrated Hanukkah with my sister and her family at our holiday party at our home in Albany.  I love how this time of year people come together to celebrate and we put all our differences aside.

This coming year, ACBA and the Albany District Attorney’s office will be coming together to offer ACBA members a new volunteer opportunity.  As mentioned in the September newsletter interview with D.A. Soares, “Clean Slate” is a new program for members of the public to join in the mission of seeking alternatives to incarceration in addressing felony level crimes committed by young adults. This program needs volunteers to assist with the filing of sealing statute applications that offer relief for community members who qualify.  The rules regarding sealing are governed by CPL 160.59 which sets forth that the Chief Administrator of the courts is charged with prescribing a form application which may be used by a defendant to apply for a sealing.  This option is available to “a defendant who has been convicted of up to two eligible offenses but not more than one felony offense.” Such individuals may apply to the court in which he or she was convicted of the most serious offense to have such conviction or convictions sealed.   Any eligible offense may be sealed only after at least ten years have passed since the imposition of the sentence on the defendant’s latest conviction or, if the defendant was sentenced to a period of incarceration, including a period of incarceration imposed in conjunction with a sentence of probation, the defendant’s latest release from incarceration.  In calculating the ten-year period, any period of time the defendant spent incarcerated after the conviction for which the application for sealing is sought, is excluded and the ten-year period shall be extended by a period or periods equal to the time served under such incarceration (See CPL 160.59 [7] [h]).

Clearly, there are people in our community who would benefit from the help of an attorney when completing the application for sealing.   Furthermore, if the Court saw fit to approve the sealing, an immeasurable outcome for that person’s life would follow.  Doors would open for better employment, state certification and more.  Some ACBA members may be nervous about offering assistance if they lack experience in criminal law. However, we are putting together an information packet that will assist our volunteers.  I’m truly excited about this partnership with the D.A.’s office as it gives us another opportunity to help those in need.

As stated by Martin Luther King, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, What are you doing for others?” I’m so proud when I see ACBA members helping individuals in Family Court at the Help Center and through other volunteer opportunities.  This program expands those volunteer opportunities and I know there are ACBA members who will help. To that end, we will be hosting an informational meet and greet regarding CPL 160.59 on January 10, 2019 at 8:00 AM at 112 State Street, Albany NY.

Until next year, be well.  I hope you had a happy Hanukkah or have a Merry Christmas, Kwanzaa, Festivas, New Year or other holiday close to your heart!

This month I had the pleasure of interviewing Hon. Stacy Pettit, Albany County Surrogate’s Court Judge, for the public service highlight.

 

1) Please summarize your role as Albany County Surrogate’s Court Judge.

Surrogate’s Court has broad jurisdiction over uncontested and contested matters involving estates and trusts, adoptions of minors and adults, and guardianships of the person and property of minors and developmentally disabled persons.  Surrogate’s Court was originally established to determine estates and cases involving those who were considered unable to protect themselves, such as surviving spouses, minor children and those under disability.  The court was also given the power to determine the testamentary intentions of a decedent. Because decedents and parties under a disability are unable to speak for themselves, the judge of the court was called a “surrogate,” charged with protecting the interests of the parties in addition to determining the outcome of cases.  As a Surrogate’s Court judge, I deal with large litigated estate matters involving businesses, commercial property, accountings and tax issues, as well as small estates brought by pro se court users, and all the cases in between.  Albany Surrogate’s Court is responsible for disposing of more than 3800 proceedings filed every year. I find the facts of the cases and the applicable law to be interesting and complex.

 

2) What motivated you to leave private practice and work in public service?

I have had a fascinating time in my career.  When I graduated from Albany Law School in 1984, I was fortunate to find a position with a large general practice firm in Albany.  The senior partners had accumulated many estate planning clients over their long careers, and the firm did not have a dedicated estate attorney. I was able to gain experience in many areas of law at that firm, but the opportunity I appreciated most was my immersion into the administration of estates.  I realized that in order to practice trust and estate law, an attorney must also be versed in real estate law, business law and tax law, and sometimes personal injury and wrongful death determinations.  I found the cases I worked on to be extremely interesting.  After that, I continued to concentrate in trust and estate law and Surrogate’s Court practice in the Albany area, eventually opening my own firm with another partner and staff.  I also enjoyed the camaraderie and knowledge I gained through my memberships in the Trusts and Estates Section of NYSBA and in the Albany County Bar Association, and I began speaking and writing on estate and trust issues early in my career.

Private practice was successful and rewarding for me.  I enjoyed the one-on-one client counseling, and found each person had a different narrative which required individual tailoring to create an appropriate estate plan for that person.  I also enjoyed helping families get through the difficult process of administering an estate, and I was gratified when I felt the process was accomplished efficiently and the parties were satisfied with the results.  Having my own firm also gave me the power to make my own schedule for work and family, which was important at the time because my husband and I had three young sons and we both worked full time. Often during that time, I saw clients and went to court in the daytime, spent the evening with my family, and then drafted documents at home at night.

While in private practice, I accepted appointments from area Surrogate’s Courts as a guardian ad litem, guardian and guardian accounts examiner.  When Albany Surrogate’s Court needed a part- time court attorney in 1999, I was able to join the court while still maintaining my private practice.  In 2001, I left private practice and joined the court full-time as Chief Clerk of the Court.  At first, I missed the personal satisfaction of dealing directly with clients, but soon, I found public service through Surrogate’s Court to be fulfilling.  It was a challenge to coordinate a large staff, manage the court caseload, and reduce the time it took to provide good service to attorneys and court users.  I enjoyed assisting counsel with Surrogate’s Court procedure, and I continued to speak and write for bar associations, the law school and other organizations to help increase the knowledge of those who practiced in the court.

From 2012 to 2014, I worked as an Appellate Court Attorney for the Appellate Division, Third Department.  That experience was invaluable in helping me to hone my skills in legal research and writing, and I think of that time as “judge school.” I found the work of the Appellate Court attorneys and judges to be very engaging, and the work made me interested in becoming a judge. When the opportunity to run for Albany County Surrogate arose in 2014, I knew I had to make the attempt, even though I had no campaigning experience and was not endorsed by a political party.  My approach to the campaign was to personally tell voters that I understood Surrogate’s Court, the law, and had the sensitivity and temperament needed in this court.

In any event, here I am.  Nearing the end of my fourth year in my judicial term, I can say that these years have been the happiest of my career so far.  I have found that if you put the same heart and effort into a public service career, public service is no less demanding than private practice.  There are always ways to improve service to court users, and the court’s staff and I are always trying to do our best to make the court experience a good one for practitioners and their clients.  I must add that I could not do this job without the court’s dedicated and talented employees, and I am proud that we work as a team.

 

3) What are some of the biggest challenges in Surrogates Court?

As practitioners know, the parties involved in contested Surrogate’s Court cases often have strong emotions which affect the progress of the cases. They feel sadness because of the loss of a loved one, but they may also harbor anger and resentment because they believe they have not been treated fairly by the decedent, their siblings or other parties. In estate and trust cases, I often hear parties state that “it is not about the money – it is about the principle.”  In such cases, emotions influence parties more than practical considerations, and they may not understand that settlement would benefit them. I often ask attorneys to use their trusted relationship with a client to explain the client’s chance of success in a given case and why settlement is an appropriate solution.  When I can facilitate a reasonable settlement among parties, I do so.  When I must hold a trial and conclude a case with a written decision, I try to write the decision with the losing party in mind, clearly and respectfully explaining the considerations and law that lead to the decision.  I also find contested guardianship and adoption cases to be challenging, since there is generally no settlement option, and the best interests of a child or disabled individual is at stake.  Again, in such cases, I try to write my decisions with compassion for the parties.

 

4) How important is mentorship in developing the next generation of attorneys?

I believe mentorship is very important.  Albany Surrogate’s Court accepts legal interns from Albany Law School every semester, and we have had summer internships every summer.  Twice we have been privileged to mentor law school recipients of summer fellowships chosen by the Trusts and Estates Section of the New York State Bar Association and paid by a Bar Foundation grant.  We will continue to mentor law students interested in trusts and estates, and we look forward to seeing them appear in our court when they become attorneys.

I have always found that lawyers who practice in Surrogate’s Court are considerate and helpful to each other.  I had many local practitioners who helped me when I was young and had a practice question, and I have tried to do the same for other practitioners by offering legal education seminars and written articles applicable to practice in this court. I strongly recommend county and state bar membership and section membership to young lawyers, so they may make connections to attorneys who will share their wisdom and experience.  Bar membership also provides access to good written materials like those found in the ACBA newsletter and the NYSBA Trusts & Estates newsletter.

 

5) What is the most valuable membership benefit for you?

I am a strong supporter of the Albany County Bar.  When I was younger, membership helped me connect with other local attorneys and judges, helped me to find employees, and helped me to enjoy social events with my colleagues.  Now, as a judge, I am restricted from socializing with attorneys who appear before me unless it involves participation in a bar association event.  I think it is very important for the bench and bar to participate in events together outside of a courtroom setting. Such events encourage civility and collegiality among us all.  Seeing each other at events where we can get to know each other as people reminds us that we should continue to treat each other with respect in all aspects of our careers. Thank you, Judge Ryba, for this opportunity to share my experiences.

 

Hon. Christina L. Ryba
ACBA President

 

 

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