Cassandra Johnson Wants Your Vote for Surrogate’s Court Judge

By Celia Bernhardt and Charlie Finnerty |

Cassandra Johnson in BQE Media’s office. Credit: Charlie Finnerty

Cassandra Johnson, the Democratic Party-endorsed candidate for Surrogate’s Court judge, describes her own work as a judge with a sharp focus on mediation, relationships, and the overall emotional state of a courtroom.

“If I treat everyone like there’s a relationship that needs to be dealt with then I can talk to people differently. It brings a different approach,” Johnson said. 

The Surrogate’s Court judge oversees estate proceedings to ensure the assets and property of deceased New Yorkers are distributed and managed properly in accordance with the law. These cases can often include custody decisions of dependents and children of the deceased. Whoever assumes the judgeship not only handles the individual cases relevant to the court, but also appoints lawyers and is responsible for the management of the offices of the court. 

Johnson, a Supreme Court judge from Southeast Queens with strong support from powerful Queens Democrats, is facing off against Civil Court Judge Wendy Li in the Democratic primary on June 25. 

Li’s relatively strong financial position has drawn eyes to a race that might not usually be such a subject of interest. Johnson said she’s not worried about the fundraising numbers and has her focus on winning voters’ support throughout the borough. 

“I come from humble beginnings,” Johnson said. “And I feel like that’s reflective of the people who I represent, in a way.”

Born in Far Rockaway, Johnson spent most of her youth in Queens Village. Both her parents were social workers, her father working in Creedmoor Psychiatric Center just minutes away from their home.

At first, Johnson wasn’t gunning for law. She excelled in math, and assumed she would become an engineer. Working under her mother’s guidance, though, opened her mind to engineering of a different kind. 

“I saw how attorneys can really advocate, and protect the most vulnerable people,” Johnsons said. “I see attorneys as social engineers, because they really impact the way we live in society — we just don’t really think about it. But that’s the reality.”

Johnson’s mother emigrated from Haiti at the age of 19, and graduated from St. John’s law school. Johnson followed in her footsteps, attending the university for both undergrad and her J.D. She learned the ropes of the legal system as a paralegal for her mother throughout college, an experience she says was foundational to her understanding of the law.

“She was like my first trainer, my first teacher, in so many ways,” Johnson said of her mother. “She really was an excellent teacher; she was trained, I feel, by some of the best.”

After graduating Johnson worked as an attorney for the city’s Human Resource Administration, where she spent time working in family court. Her next step was working under a judge in the matrimonial department of Queens County Supreme Court. Later, she moved on to working as a court attorney referee where she often worked on foreclosure cases. 

Johnson said starting out in family and matrimonial law gave her a relationship-focused lens that she continues to take with her into the courtroom — even in matters like commercial disputes. She walked through the example of how she might apply this thinking in a foreclosure case. 

“We always have feelings about paying things, and we have feelings about our home and wanting to protect that,” she said. “You’re managing a conversation between people…What’s feasible? How can we leave where the bank gets paid, and the homeowner keeps the house?”

Johnson said she sees it as her role to temper the high emotions that can sometimes reign in those cases and steer discussions towards the facts. Still, she said, she tries to remain attentive to what litigants are going through internally.

“It’s easy to get jaded. But I think that also impacts you as a person — when someone’s jaded, you’re impacted. And so that’s why I feel like I have to work on myself all the time so that I can show up for people.”

Johnson gives credit to her training in mediation for her approach to dealing with thorny relationships in the courtroom. 

“[It’s] finding just that one thing that they agree on. When you find just one thing — even that the sky is blue — then I get to be like, ‘All right, you guys agreed on this.’ And sometimes it’s bringing them back in a month or two and having them agree on one other thing.”

Johnson has drawn deep support from top-ranking members of the party: Queens Congressman Gregory Meeks made it a point to introduce Johnson, currently a Supreme Court judge, at an early March luncheon packed with politicians. Just after that, Congresswoman Grace Meng gathered along with other politicians for a ballot petitioning drive for Johnson. 

Unlike the high-profile campaigns of city council and mayoral races, surrogate court candidates are restricted from discussing political issues openly or directly soliciting donations. State law places judicial campaigns under higher scrutiny than the average political campaign. Candidates are held to a higher standard of truthfulness in how they represent themselves, cannot endorse candidates in other races, cannot appeal to specific political policy preferences and — crucially —  cannot directly solicit donations or even know the identity of donors. A team of fundraisers manages the campaign’s finance in the candidate’s stead. 

Because of timing around disclosure requirements, it’s not clear how much Johnson has in her war chest. She will, though, be able to transfer over  $13,938 from a previous campaign. 

Li looks to be a formidable opponent financially, with nearly $200,000 in donations to work with. Li has a strong base of support in the Asian communities of Northeast Queens; Johnson, with Congressman Meeks’ support, is expected to appeal to the large swath of Black homeowners and residents in Southeast Queens where she grew up. 

Johnson said she’s not worried about Li’s fundraising. 

“From my perspective, how much she has raised makes no difference to me. I have to focus on the task at hand, which is focusing on garnering support throughout the county, which is what I’ve been doing,” Johnson said.

When it comes to conversations about the surrogate seat as one historically mired in practices of political patronage, Li has argued that —  as a relative “outsider” running without the endorsement of the Queens Democratic Party — she is the candidate devoted to undoing that precedent.

Johnson pushed back against Li’s claim that the surrogate attorney panel selection process is unduly influenced by political patronage and trading favors for lucrative attorney placements. 

“There is a limit based on the law on how much any person can get. So it’s not that one person that’s going to get millions of dollars, just like that. You can’t appoint someone too many times,” Johnson said. “I think it’s important when I’m appointing someone to act on the courts behalf, that they have a reputation for doing great work, because that’s a reflection upon me as well.”

Johnson, for her part, said she’s proud to be backed by the party. 

“I think it’s interesting that out of the 20, 30 people that they’ve interviewed for this position, I got the nomination,” She said. “I think that’s reflective of who they think can do the job.”

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