Meet Sabrina Setareh Kraus: Iranian American Candidate for Civil Court Judge in New York City

By PAAIA Staff  

February 25, 2011, New York, NY– The Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian American (PAAIA) and its connected PAC, the Iranian American Political Action Committee (IAPAC), recently had the opportunity to sit down with Housing Court Judge Sabrina Setareh Kraus and discuss her campaign for Civil Court Judge in New York City.  If successful, Sabrina would become the first American of Iranian descent to be elected to public office in New York City.

Sabrina received her undergraduate degree from Colgate University in 1988, with a major in International Relations and French Literature.  She earned her law degree from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, in 1991.

Prior to taking the bench in 2006, she spent approximately fifteen years in private practice.  During the years 2000 through 2006, she was a Partner at the Law firm of Boarh Goldstein, Altschuler, Nahins & Goidel, PC, specializing in Real Estate Litigation.  While at Borah Goldstein, she handled all facets of litigation for clients in Housing Court, Civil Court, and State Supreme Court. She also made appearances on related issues in Bankruptcy Court and Surrogate’s Court. 

Sabrina is currently serving as a Housing Court Judge in New York City. She was appointed to the position in 2006 by the Hon. Jonathan Lippman, currently the Chief Judge in New York State.  In order to be appointed to sit as a Housing Court Judge; an attorney must be approved by the appointing body, the Housing Advisory Council, as well as be found qualified by the New York City Bar Association.  The process also involves interviews with top administrative judges, prior to a final appointment by the Chief Administrative Judge. 

An active member of the legal community, Sabrina was elected by her colleagues as President of the Housing Court Judges Association in 2010.  In her capacity as President, she represents all Housing Court Judges in New York City in interactions with other Judicial Associations and with the Office of Court Administration.  She is also a member of various professional organizations including the New York City Bar Association, Jewish Lawyer’s Guild, National Association of Women Judges, New York Women’s Bar Association, and New York County Lawyer’s Association.

The following is a transcript of the interview with Judge Sabrina Setareh Kraus:

PAAIA/IAPAC:  Why are you running for Civil Court in New York City?

Sabrina:  Since I have become a Judge, the administration of justice has become my life’s work.  I value the opportunity I have to serve the public, and I believe that election to Civil Court will allow me a greater opportunity to serve, in a more meaningful capacity.  Civil Court has jurisdiction over a wider variety of issues and scope of relief.  Despite the higher stakes involved, Civil Court litigants, often appear pro se, just as the litigants in Housing Court do.  The volume of cases can also be quite heavy, as in Housing Court.  Civil Court will provide me with the opportunity to bring the skills I have garnered in Housing Court to a greater population of litigants in resolving a wider range of disputes.

Additionally, Civil Court Judges preside over jury trials, something Housing Court Judges lack jurisdiction to do, and Civil Court Judges preside over cases that are transferred by Supreme Court pursuant to statute.  These are cases that meet the jurisdictional thresholds for Supreme Court in New York, but are transferred to be administered in Civil Court.

Election to Civil Court also opens the door to the opportunity to serve in many of New York City’s other Courts.  Civil Court Judges are routinely assigned to Criminal Court and Family Court.  The Judges presiding over these Courts must determine disputes that touch on the liberty of individuals, the protection of the public, and such fundamental rights, as the right to be a parent.

PAAIA/IAPAC: What are the qualifications to become a Civil Court Judge in New York City? 

Sabrina:The minimum legal threshold requirements to run for Civil Court in New York City are admission to practice for ten years, and New York City residency.

New York City and Manhattan, in particular, are predominately democratic jurisdictions, and the candidate, that wins the democratic primary, will generally be the candidate elected to office.   In order to secure the Democratic Party nomination, a candidate must be reported out of a Screening Panel.  This year there will be two screening panels, run by the Democratic Party, for the four seats available for Civil Court.  There will be a county wide panel for the county wide seat and the two seats in the third judicial district (Chelsea), and there will be a separate panel for the seat available in the fifth judicial district (Upper West Side).

Generally speaking, the Screening Panels, which are made up of various representatives from bar associations and community groups will report out the three most qualified candidates for each vacancy.  Once a candidate is reported out as qualified, the relevant District Leaders and clubs will endorse the candidate of their choice, from the three candidates reported out by the Screening Panel.  Any candidate who wishes to seek election must obtain the requisite number of signatures and file a petition to be placed on the ballot.

PAAIA/IAPAC: What are some of the challenges you believe your campaign must overcome to mount a successful campaign?

Sabrina:  The challenges I must overcome to win the primary are the disadvantages I face as an outsider to the local political system, in a year where voter turnout is anticipated to be particularly low, because there are no major elections slated, and the accusation that I am biased in any way towards landlords, or that my experience representing landlords in some way makes me less qualified to sit as a Judge in Civil Court.

I believe that I am readily capable of meeting these challenges.  As far as being an outsider goes, I have been working for the past year to introduce myself to the local political leaders and familiarize them with my qualifications.  Additionally, this challenge can be met by reaching out directly to the public and seeking their support in my election.  I believe that if I can reach the voters and educate them about my experience and qualifications, I will be elected.  However, overcoming this challenge will involve the expenditure of significant resources.

As far as any alleged bias goes, I believe that my record since taking the bench in 2006 will establish that I have no bias towards one side or the other.  While those who only know my professional background, and are not familiar with my work in Housing Court, may assume that such a bias exist, anyone who examines my rulings or spends any time in my courtroom, knows that it does not.  While I do not think that “landlord” is a four letter word, I have great empathy for the plight of the tenants facing eviction who appear before me.  Moreover, my experience in private practice enabled me to gain an expertise in the substantive area of the law and in the practice of said law by the bar.  This knowledge has enabled to serve the pro se tenants appearing before me by enabling me to readily identify potential issues and refer appropriate matters for legal assistance.

Therefore, while I face challenges as an outsider and based on my background in private practice, I intend to overcome these challenges by educating the voting public on my record while on the bench, and my qualifications.

PAAIA/IAPAC:  What are the fundraising goals of your committee?

Sabrina:  As noted above, this year there are four seats available for Civil Court in Manhattan.  One is a county-wide seat, and the other three are district seats.  In order to mount a successful county-wide primary, significant funds will be required.  If I run for a district-wide seat, the total amount necessary will be less.

As a Judicial Candidate any funds I raise must be used for this election.  I am not permitted to roll over funds from one year to the next as other political candidates do.  Any funds that I raise that are not used in the election must be returned to the donors on a pro rata basis.

PAAIA/IAPAC:  What differentiates you from other potential candidates for the position?

Sabrina:  The combination of my experience of fifteen years in private practice, with the years of experience I have gained sitting as a Judge in Housing Court, make me uniquely qualified to sit as a Civil Court Judge.  As far as I know, I am the only Candidate seeking election that has been reported out of a Screening Panel and has experience sitting as a Judge.

Since becoming a Housing Court Judge, I have become an unmitigated workaholic.  I am dedicated to the public service my position embodies, and bring a private practice work ethic to that public service.  I am devoted to my job, because I love my job, and am consciously aware, every day, of what a privilege it is to serve. I am adept at handling a high volume of cases, without sacrificing the quality of the justice administered to the parties who appear before me, or the quality of the written decisions issued in those proceedings.

I am a people person.  I love being in the courtroom, and am effective in assisting the parties appearing before me in resolving issues and settling cases.  My years of experience sitting on the bench, dealing with pro se litigants and a high volume of cases give me an advantage over any candidate lacking similar credentials. 

Similarly, my years as a litigator in private practice, and my positions as a Partner in two prestigious law firms, give me an understanding of the pressures faced by the practitioners litigating their claims before me.  I know, first hand, that the practice of law is also a business, and not confined to the ivory towers of academia.  This understanding and experience have contributed to my success in assisting parties before me in resolving their disputes.

Additionally, I have been privileged in life to be exposed to a variety of different cultures and religions, not only from living and working in New York City, but also from my own personal background.  I am the first generation American in my family, and am of Iranian Jewish descent.

My background brings diversity to the bench that is critical and valued by those who evaluate judicial candidates.  I have had landlords, tenants and attorneys appear before me who are also Iranian.  It gives the litigants and the attorney’s confidence in the judicial system to know that the judiciary includes people who are of the same background as they are. 

In addition to my background, I speak French and Farsi, and have had the opportunity to travel extensively.  Given the opportunity to serve in the Civil Court, often referred to as the People’s Court, I will be able to draw on these experiences and my background in serving the colorful tapestry of New York City residents that seek relief in Civil Court everyday.

PAAIA/IAPAC:  What role do you think Iranian Americans can play in your campaign and what do you expect from the community?

Sabrina:  One criterion that is always sought in potential judicial candidates is diversity.  My background as an Iranian American is an important part of who I am and how I see the world.  In my campaign the support of Iranian Americans will be critical.  In seeking to promote diversity on the bench, various ethnic groups have formed professional associations which endorse and advocate for candidates for election.  The support of such groups had proved vital in the election of so many jurists before me.   Iranian Americans make up an important segment of the population in the New York Metropolitan Area, and deserve representation and meaningful participation in all branches of the government.  I need the support of the community in raising funds for the campaign, and in showing that our community is important in the political world and can not be ignored or marginalized.

Additionally, Iranian Americans have a proud cultural heritage and always respond with enthusiasm when they learn of my background and accomplishments.  Iranian American Women are particularly excited about seeing one of their own on the bench.  This support is vital to my campaign because being an Iranian American is such an integral part of who I am.

I hope that the community will support me financially, by volunteering to work on my campaign, and by spreading the word of my credentials and accomplishments.  I have had the opportunity to have interns and other students work with my in my Courtroom, since I have been sitting as a Housing Court Judge, several of these interns have also been Iranian Americans.  It is as exciting for me to have such students working with me, as it is vital for these students to have such opportunities.  I believe that these are concerns that are shared by the Iranian American community and that will bring them to support my campaign and help me win this election.

PAAIA/IAPAC:  What role can organizations like PAAIA/IAPAC play in assisting your campaign?

Sabrina:  There are three primary roles that organizations like PAAIA/IAPAC can play in assisting my campaign.  The organization can assist me in organizing a strong viable campaign.  The organization can assist me in gaining the endorsement of other politicians that have been supported by the organization in the past, and the organization can assist me in spreading the message of my campaign and familiarizing the public with my candidacy and my credentials for the position.

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