Candidates running for civil court are put in the unique position of convincing voters that they’d be perfect for a certain job without knowing what the specifics of that job will be. That’s because there are several different areas of civil court, and a new judge will be placed wherever the need is greatest. The position encompasses civil court, which handles matters worth $25,000 or less; criminal court, which hears misdemeanors and violations; and family court, which deals with custody and visitation, abuse and neglect cases, and orders of protection. It also includes small claims court and housing court.
There are two candidates vying for the Democratic nomination for civil court judge, Lisa Sokoloff and Olga Statz. Our Town Downtown spoke to both of them in anticipation of the Sept. 13 primary election.
For Olga Statz, helping people out of tough situations is in her blood and her family history. It’s something that has driven her to become a voice of fairness in the wider world of chaos, and is a big reason why she’s running for civil court judge.
“When I had my own office, [political asylum cases] were a great deal of what I did,” Statz said in a recent interview. She was inspired to take on these difficult cases because her own family had been forced into the same situation in which many of her clients found themselves.
“My parents came from Haiti. They had to escape ‘Bébé Doc’ Duvalier,” the brutal dictator of Haiti from 1971 to 1986, she said. “I kind of grew up in that atmosphere, and I always wanted to do something for people who were seeking, running away from tyranny, basically, and want to come to a place where they have an opportunity to express themselves, an opportunity to know that there’s a rule of law and not some guy deciding if they’re going to live or if they’re going to die.”
Statz was driven to the law from an early age. Aside from a brief desire to be a chemist that she blames on her affinity for mixing her mother’s perfumes together, she was intently focused on her goal, so much so that she graduated from City College of New York magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa at age 19. She went directly to law school at NYU and was a lawyer by the time she was 22.
She started out working for the New York City Law Department and eventually opened her own practice, where she took on many asylum and immigration cases. It was challenging, she said, but also fascinating, because each case required a lot of research to establish exactly what kind of situation a client was escaping in his or her home country. Eventually, she gained a roster of clients who pushed her into other areas of practice.
She said that she started to hear from people that she should consider becoming a judge, which is something that she heard early on in her career that she had initially brushed aside. When she was working for the city in administrative law, she had to conference cases before they went to court, trying to get both parties to settle and work out a plea deal.
“I heard several times, you should be a judge. I was very young, so I wasn’t really focusing on that,” Statz said. But it started to come up again after she had spent time teaching law and serving as the principal law secretary to Brooklyn Surrogate Court Judge Margarita Lopez Torres, and this time she heeded the call.
Statz is a member of the Brooklyn Bar Association, the Brooklyn Women’s Bar Association and the City Bar Association, and she has worked on local preservation issues, including the campaign to landmark the St. Vincent de Paul Church on West 23rd Street. She recently earned the endorsement of the New York Times—a nod that carries hefty weight in an election where voter turnout is expected to be low—which noted her diverse experience and fluency in five languages (English, French, Spanish, Creole and German) as important assets.
Lisa Sokoloff knows what it feels like to be on the receiving end of an unfair, unsympathetic ruling from a judge—and she cites that feeling as the reason she’s on the path of campaigning to be a civil court judge.
“I became a lawyer because of an unfair order in my own parents’ divorce proceedings, which caused my mother, my sister and me to be plunged into poverty,” Sokoloff said in a recent interview. “It was really pretty awful. Not that we were significantly well-off to begin with, but we ended up on food stamps. I couldn’t have gone to law school or college if it weren’t for grants and scholarships,” she said, which allowed her to attend Vassar College and get her law degree from Boston University School of Law.
Sokoloff, who has been practicing law for 28 years, said that she has tried to keep those tenets of fairness and compassion in the forefront of her legal work. She has represented an array of clients in all kinds of cases, from divorcing spouses to immigrants to small businesses. She also served as a special master in New York City Civil and Supreme Courts between 1999 and 2010, volunteering to conference cases that she would often be able to help settle.
Her ability to settle cases, she said, would be a valuable asset for a civil court judge.
“Not all judges are good settlers,” Sokoloff said. “Some of them just don’t take the time to settle cases, or if they do try to do it, they’re not good at it.”
She recalled a specific case in which she was able to broker a settlement as a special master. An 89-year-old woman had lent her entire retirement fund to a restaurateur to open a second location. The loan notice contained an interest rate that was so high it would have been found to be unenforceable, Sokoloff said, but she knew that the woman needed to get her investment returned in a timely fashion—quicker than the average two years it would take the case to wind its way through the court.
“We settled it that day and she got her money back,” Sokoloff said. She was happy not only to help both parties in the case but also that she had saved the court’s time and money in trying the case.
She also discovered while working as a special master that she liked helping people without attorneys to navigate the system.
“I work extremely well with pro se litigants,” people who represent themselves in court without an attorney, she said. “In the civil court, that happens much more frequently than it does in the Supreme Court. Often, they need to know that they’re being heard, and when I work with pro se litigants, I always mirror back to them what they’re telling me.
Sokoloff has earned the endorsements of several prominent Manhattan politicians, including Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, state Sen. Tom Duane, Assembly Members Linda Rosenthal and Richard Gottfried, and Council Member Gale Brewer. She’s a member of the Jewish Lawyers Guild, New York State Bar Association, Network of Bar Leaders and New York County Lawyers Association and has served as the president of the New York Women’s Bar Association.
She didn’t always see herself on the path to civil court judge, however.
“I always thought of judges as pretty exalted beings. I never even considered being a judge, but when I started to special master, I realized how much I loved the role of the court and I felt like it was calling out to me,” Sokoloff said.
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