Hon. Rosemarie Montalbano, a justice of the New York state Supreme Court, is running for Surrogate’s Court judge in Brooklyn in a primary election that will be held June 22.
In an interview in the Hamodia office, Montalbano, 55, discussed her upbringing in Bushwick as the translator for a neighborhood of Italian immigrants, why all voters should care about casting ballots for Surrogate’s Court, and why people should be sure to have written wills.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell us about your background.
I was born, raised, and live now in Bushwick, Brooklyn, the daughter of immigrants from Sicily.
My father was 31 when he came here, so he was very set in his ways. He never really grasped the language, and he struggled.
I’m fluent in Italian, because there was no English spoken in the house till I went to kindergarten —that’s where I learned how to speak English.
I’m an only child. And I was an interpreter for everything. My father worked as a porter, then he worked construction. When construction was on strike, he walked around the neighborhood, thinking, “What am I going to do?” And he bought a delicatessen.
At the time, we lived in a six-family house. The landlord was my aunt’s uncle; it was all family. He said, “If there’s an opportunity, I’ll help you to get on your feet.” He did that for a lot of people.
My father bought the deli when I was maybe 6 and a half. And I worked there till I got married, 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week. We lived upstairs in a four-room railroad apartment.
I loved school because I’d think I was getting out of the deli to go to school. So it was really a joy to me to go to school to learn to read.
Getting out of the deli to go to school — you mean that literally and figuratively.
But because I really had the opportunity to be in the deli, as hard as it was, it was such an opportunity to meet everyone, to meet people from all different backgrounds, all different cultures, and really get to know how people live, because otherwise I really would not have been exposed to them.
A lot of the people in the neighborhood were factory workers. The factories could not be open in July and August. Those people had to go on unemployment. And I would get on the train with them, we’d go to Williamsburg and I’d fill out all the papers for a good number of people. And then they’d come with their mail, and I would interpret their mail; it became something that I liked to do.
Going to college was not a given. I had to fight for it. My father said, “We really don’t have the money. It’s a lot of money,” And I said, “I’ll take out loans. I’ll do whatever.” And he needed me in the deli. But I fought and fought, and I did it. And I’m so grateful. I went to St. John’s University, and then to Western New England Law School in Springfield, Massachusetts. And that was such an eye-opener, because I had never left the neighborhood.
But I knew that if I had stayed, it would have been impossible because I always did my homework at 9:00, all through elementary, high school, and then even in college — that was the agreement. So when it came to law school, I said, “I can’t do it” and I went out of town. That was a struggle.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Because when I left, everything seemed to have fallen apart. My father had some financial difficulties, he got some letters in the mail, he ignored them. The house went into foreclosure.
He then got a letter from what I call predatory lenders, which said, “I know you’re having financial difficulties. I’ll lend you $10,000.” And he thought, “Wow, this is great. My prayers have been answered; someone’s willing to help me.” Little did he know, he had signed a document that would allow them to buy the house for a third of what it was worth. And they were closing in, because he missed a payment. And he owed everyone — taxes, water, ConEd, Brooklyn Union Gas; you name it, they were coming.
A bank would not look at us. He was making, I think, $18,000 a year. This was 1989-1990.
Now, fast forward to the deed theft that’s going on in Brooklyn now. It was a program that the Giuliani administration put in if people were behind in their water or taxes, that those liens got sold. And then those companies or groups put a very big lien on your home and sometimes ended up taking your home if you couldn’t pay. Luckily for us, that program was not in effect in the late ’80s, early ’90s. So we actually had to ask around and got someone to lend us money to pay off.
We paid a lot more than the banks would have charged for interest. But I wanted to save the house, and my mother was agoraphobic. She was afraid to go outside. She had so many emotional issues that she was dealing with. So I was like, “I can’t put them out.” As mad as I was that he didn’t pay the bills and never told anyone, I think he just got in over his head and didn’t understand the legality of it. So I really had to navigate a lot of that.
Why does a Supreme Court justice want to go to Surrogate’s Court?
I personally want to go because I’m passionate about the work that’s done there.
For people who wind up before Surrogate’s Court, it can affect their life very much. But most people have no idea what it is. Can you describe the cases that come before the Surrogate’s Court?
Surrogate’s Court deals with wills, trusts and estates. Often there is no will. Sometimes there’s a will that’s contested.
And there are guardianship issues for developmentally and intellectually disabled people. Someone may have an adult child with a disability, and a parent or a family member wants to be the guardian.
Education about the Surrogate’s Court is so important. Because most issues that end up in this court can be avoided.
If people wrote wills?
If people wrote wills, and if they understood about trusts. A lot of people say, “I don’t want to talk about it, because I’m not going to die or I don’t want to feel like I’m going to die.”
But they have to understand the consequences if they don’t.
When I speak to people about the Surrogate’s Court, what is mentioned more than anything else is the backlog of cases. What do you plan to do about it?
I’ve gone into every job because I have worked at the bottom and feel that I need to know what everyone is doing. I did it when I was a prosecutor. I went into the courtroom, and I met the staff. I did it when I was working for a judge.
From what I hear, there are piles of files stacked. But if someone knows someone, they could call someone and the drawer gets opened and the file miraculously gets handled. Another thing that I hear all the time is that the more complex issues get shelved because no one wants to do them. The court needs more staff. But I will absolutely go down to that clerk’s office, and I have no problem saying, “What is going on here? Let’s go.”
Can you make a case for why voters who go to vote for the more well-known positions on June 22 should actually check a box in the Surrogate’s Court race?
People don’t realize that they need the Surrogate’s Court, or they need the efficiency in the Surrogate’s Court, until, sometimes, it’s too late. We’ve all heard how there’s a backlog. We’ve all heard that cases are not getting heard. It’s very important that you put someone in there who has a reputation, who’s going in with experience, who could handle the cases, who’s willing to do the work.
I leave every person that I speak to practically, and say to them, “Don’t take my word for it. I’m a hard worker, I’m telling you, but don’t take my word. Ask lawyers who have appeared in front of me, ask other judges, ask litigants.” I wish I really kept a list. Because I have had so much personal interaction with people in the Civil Court who came with no lawyer, who were afraid.
We talked about Brooklyn Union and ConEd, like these bills that don’t get paid, and then they’re looking to shut off your services. I woke up one Thanksgiving as a child with no heat, because the bill wasn’t paid. So when I went into Civil Court on such cases, I said to them, “No one is leaving here with no utility. We’re going to work it out.” And I felt like I had an impact. These people were coming before me agreeing to pay $150 a month towards their arrears and their new bills. They couldn’t do it. And in talking to them, they admit that they can’t do it. Some of them start crying. I said, “It’s nothing to cry about; we are here to work it out.” And we went as low as $10 a month towards the arrears.
And this is another thing with these tax liens and deed theft — people have to know in your communities that this is happening. If you have a water bill that you can’t pay, if you have a tax bill, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. You have to talk to your family, and you have to contact the authorities. They will work out a payment plan before that lien is sold. When it’s sold, it becomes a problem. An unpaid $2,000 or $3,000 water bill can cost you your home.
And again, we have to speak to our elders. Mom or Grandma passes, you’re like, “Okay, we have the will.” And then it turns out there’s a $500,000 lien on your house.
These are things that have to be discussed, that should be avoided. It’s an important court. Because if they’re not, you want someone there that’s going to say, “No, I’m the gatekeeper, and I’m not going to allow you to agree to sell the home for $600,000 when I know that house is worth $1.2 million.”
And I’m not a rubber stamp. I’m not going to just let fees accumulate. Because some of these estates, it’s hundreds of thousands in fees.