Volume 76, Number 16 | September 6 - 12, 2006

Three Civil Court candidates all bring experience

By David Spett

The race for Civil Court judge in Manhattan’s District 2 features three Democratic candidates: Margaret Chan, David Cohen and Andrea Masley. The winner of the Sept. 12 primary will face no Republican or Independence Party opposition in the Nov. 7 general election, according to the Board of Elections’ Web site.

Civil Court judges are elected for 10-year terms. The court handles small-claims lawsuits, which are valued at $5,000 or less; other civil cases up to $25,000; landlord-tenant disputes; and certain cases transferred from State Supreme Court. For these reasons, Civil Court is often called “The People’s Court.”

Occasionally, Civil Court judges are invited to serve as Criminal Court or acting Supreme Court judges.

After law school, Chan worked for five and a half years in the Supreme Court’s Appellate Division, reviewing and writing about 300 recommendations for the judges, she said. She has been in private practice seven years, working primarily as an immigration lawyer for clients of diverse backgrounds.

Chan said her ethnic minority status would bring diversity to the court. She stressed her immigrant background: She was born in Hong Kong, moved to Montreal when she was 7 and moved again to Brooklyn when she was 14.

Asians don’t often go to court, Chan said, and sometimes court officials assume she is a translator because of her ethnicity.

“That’s got to change,” she said.

“I served as a small-claims arbitrator,” she added. “The few times I did get Chinese claimants and defendants, you can see the kind of relief on their faces, because it’s sort of, ‘Hey, here’s someone who understands.’”

Chan has an ambitious agenda to make the judicial system fairer. On her Web site, she proposes granting free legal services to all working families facing eviction. She also proposes banning politicians from endorsing candidates in Civil Court elections.

Noting Chan’s lack of endorsements from politicians, her campaign manager, Michael Oliva, said her campaign is not “the big-money-politician-type of campaign.” Chan is proud not to have any big-name political endorsers, Oliva said.

Chan stressed diversity as the main reason she deserves voters’ support.

“Diversity matters, and I think a court should reflect the community that it serves,” Chan said. “I also want to be a role model to show my community that we can go above and serve in public service, and that it is good for the community.”

Cohen has spent the past two years as a housing court judge, making him the only candidate in the race who has been a sitting judge.

“In a housing court, there are a vast number of unrepresented litigants, and there are a lot of challenges,” Cohen said. “A judge has to be able to handle all those challenges while still keeping a calm, cool head.”

Cohen said he has the demeanor a Civil Court judge needs.

“They [litigants] see that I’m calm, that I don’t tolerate a lot of excitement or energy or tantrum throwing or anything like that,” he said.

Besides being a judge, Cohen has worked for a judge and appeared before judges as an attorney in state Attorney General’s Eliot Spitzer’s office. He has also worked for state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Cohen called himself the most experienced candidate in the race.

“I’ve seen the whole picture, I understand the dynamic from all sides, and I think that that makes me a very good judge,” he said, adding that he also has the intellectual ability for the job.

Cohen is the only candidate who registered his candidacy with an address in the district.

Masley has been an attorney for 15 years, prior to that working as a consumer advocate at the Better Business Bureau for five years.

Presently, she works as principal court attorney for State Supreme Court Justice Charles Edward Ramos. She manages 350 cases at a time in the judge’s commercial division.

“The kinds of cases I’ve been working on for the last eight years are the cases that come before the Civil Court,” Masley said.

“It takes a special skill to work with people who are representing themselves,” she went on, noting that many litigants in Civil Court do not retain a lawyer. “They’re nervous, they’re overwhelmed, and you need to be able to draw them out and make them feel comfortable, while not stepping over the line of actually representing them.”

Masley became interested in law after a two-month internship at the Better Business Bureau that yielded a five-year job investigating companies and mediating disputes between customers and businesses.

“It was such a great job. I really am blessed to have had such a wonderful job so early in my career,” she said. “Frankly, it changed my life.”

Masley said she decided to attend law school because the B.B.B. taught her lawyers can do good.

“We need judges who are going to take the time to try to find the law” that will yield a fair decision, she said.
Coalition for a District Alternative, Village Independent Democrats and Village Reform Democratic Club have endorsed Chan. Councilmembers Alan Gerson and Christine Quinn and Speaker Silver have endorsed Cohen.

Former Councilmember Margarita Lopez and Assemblymember Sylvia Friedman have endorsed Masley.

On Aug. 3, the Masley campaign dropped a lawsuit that attempted to knock Chan off the ballot, alleging she had obtained insufficient petition signatures. The New York City Bar Association, which ranks judicial candidates’ qualifications, gave all three candidates a rating of “approved.” LeGaL, a gay and lesbian law association, rated both Cohen and Masley “highly approved.” Chan did not appear before LeGaL.

The New York Times has endorsed Cohen, calling Masley a close second.

“The court system needs judges with Ms. Masley’s expertise in commercial litigation,” the Aug. 20 editorial read, “but in a close call Mr. Cohen’s experience as a housing judge earns our endorsement.” The editorial said Chan’s credentials “are weaker than her competitors.”

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