Westchester divorce court shakeup

There’s another round of big changes coming to Westchester’s matrimonial courts.

Administrative Judge Alan Scheinkman tells me that he is the midst of reorganizing the court, which handles divorce cases. The court is losing one of its four judges to the Bronx, he said, leaving three to take on an overwhelming caseload.

Right now, the four matrimonial judges handle 150 to 200 cases. Each. It’s causing divorces to drag on for years and years, Scheinkman said, and that has to stop. He wants to speed up the process by eliminating unnecessary motions filed by lawyers and keeping discovery deadlines firm. Not only would this save time, he said, but would reduce the financial and emotional costs for litigants.

Scheinkman, who oversees the 9th Judicial District, which includes Westchester, Rockland, Putnam, Orange and Dutchess counties, said he would have a better idea in a week or two of how the changes would work for matrimonial judges Linda Jamieson, Bruce Tolbert and Sam Walker.

The last shake-up for the matrimonial courts was in 2006, when the state court system replaced three judges following complaints of mishandled divorce cases.

It began in the wake of a feud between Francis Nicolai, then the administrative judge of the 9th Judicial District, and special referee James Montagnino. Montagnino, a former county prosecutor and longtime court system employee, was accused by several litigants of treating them unfairly. Several female plaintiffs took particular offense at a lecture he gave at Pace Law School two years ago in which he discussed the “10583 Syndrome,” a reference to Scarsdale’s zip code. He was talking about the mentality of stay-at-home mothers in upscale communities having a sense of entitlement to huge divorce settlements from their wealthy husbands.

Montagnino insisted that the comment was taken out of context from a discussion of the distribution of assets and that he was not biased against women and treated all litigants appropriately. He questioned the timing of the investigation, saying it was in response to his own criticism of Nicolai.

Whatever the reasons, Surrogate Anthony Scarpino was named supervising judge of the divorce courts and several judges handling matrimonial cases were reassigned. The role of special referees who mediate divorces also was curtailed; they can mediate custody cases or financial cases, but not both for the same litigants.

Montagnino was transferred to the 3rd Judicial District in Albany. Nicolai stepped down as administrative judge this year and became the presiding justice of the state Supreme Court’s Appellate Term for the 9th and 10th districts.

Fight on the 19th floor: the details

It took a few days, but I finally found out what happened during the “altercation” in Westchester County Surrogate Court last week. This is what Westchester County Police told me:

A former Surrogate’s Court employee named Charmain Smalls had a beef with Deupty Chief Clerk Johanna O’Brien (her former boss?) and confronted her in a courtroom. The argument escalated, and Smalls threw an umbrella,  hitting O’Brien in the chest.

Smalls, 31, of Queens, was originally charged with aggravated harassment, which is either a misdemeanor or a low-level felony, depending on the degree. But county police said she was incorrectly charged and changed it to second-degree harassment, a violation.
She was released on her own recognizance and ordered to appear in White Plains City Court on July 10.

State Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scarpino Jr., who heads the Surrogate Court, directed all questions about the confrontation to David Bookstaver, spokesman for the New York State Office of Court Administration.

Bookstaver identified Smalls today (which allowed me to get the details from police), but he declined to offer further details about the incident, saying it was an “internal dispute.”

Click here to read the original blog post about the fracas.

Fight on the 19th Floor

So there I was, in the third-floor hallway of the Westchester County County when 8 uniformed court officers run past me. And I mean RUN. Of course, I run after them. They won’t let me on the elevator, so I wait, and the next elevator is packed with MORE court officers.

I find out they’re going to the 19th floor — Surrogate Court — so I hop on a free elevator and go to the top floor. The doors open, and it’s quiet, except for a couple of court officers behind the help desk. I ask one of the women at the help desk what happened. She smiled a tight smile and said, without moving her jaw, “This is really not a good time.”

Turns out two employees got into a fight, or “altercation” as the lingo goes. Apparently one of the employees wasn’t supposed to be there. No one got arrested and no one was hurt. That’s all I got from those willing to talk with me.

I left a message with the law clerk for state Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scarpino, the head of the Surrogate Court.  No word yet from them.

Meanwhile, if you know more about what happened up on 19, feel free to email me confidentially at rebaker@lohud.com.