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Passaic County Surrogate Bernice Toledo. (Photo: New Jersey Globe file photo).

Toledo: ‘Death is a sensitive field of work at any time’

By Judge Bernice Toledo, June 14 2020 6:43 pm


Multiple constituents, motivated by the passing of Mr. George Floyd, have asked for my opinion and policies on the Surrogate’s Court. They want to know how I execute my duties. 
The Surrogate’s Court handles a great deal of issues related to death and to dying. This is necessarily linked to the matters of historical significance now occurring. For example, the Surrogate’s Court mostly deals with one’s last breath, the COVID-19 obstructs breath, and Mr. George Floyd was without breath. Death is a sensitive field of work at any time, but during this critical time, I feel compelled to compound my efforts to deliver fair and compassionate access to my Court. 
During this COVID-19 crisis, the workload of the Passaic County Surrogate’s Court increased exponentially. Each month, Passaic County suffers the death of about 300 of its residents. In May 2020, that number was 440% higher: we lost 1,320 residents. Even with the staggering Coronavirus-induced workload, I am proud that my staff has treated clients with its usual sensitive demeanor. My team has adapted well to my new procedures allowing us to serve remotely during the COVID-19 quarantine. That fact is, however, that they must.
The Passaic County Surrogate’s Court is not a first responder. We are called upon after the ambulance, after the hospital, and after the funeral director. That makes my Surrogate’s Court the “Last Responder”. 
As “Last Responders” my team and I are called to serve EVERYONE who makes an application to my court. I have deliberately compiled a team that is comprised of assorted cultural, religious, ethnic, and socio-economic experiences. This helps us to treat vulnerable or grieving families with empathy.
In the Surrogate’s Court, my role is to appoint someone to step into the shoes of another who cannot do for themselves. The population that I serve is particularly vulnerable. They are the grief-stricken widow/widower, the elderly, the cognitively disabled adult, and the orphaned child.  I also safeguard $20 million dollars belonging to Passaic County children. Those children receive money as a result of the sad death of a loved one or of a civil award from their own tragic or near-death injury. 
I am here to serve the public in its time of grief and uncertainty. I have zero tolerance for the mistreatment of others. I find it especially repulsive when one person takes advantage of another based on capricious or unscrupulous motivations such as age, race, color, creed, gender, appearance, orientation, or disability. 
The manner in which I lead my court is not just a response to these times of crisis. My practice has been in effect at all times since 2011, when I was first elected to my post as Judge of the Surrogate’s Court. 
I have personal opinions about Mr. George Floyd’s passing and the events that flowed from it. In fact, I have opinions about Mr. Ahmaud Arbury, Mr. Christian Cooper, Ms. Sandra Bland, Ms. Breonna Taylor, Passaic County’s own, Mr. Jameek Lowery, and so many others. 
The judiciary, however, appropriately precludes me from offering public input. This is because it could give rise to public misconception that a judge can change the outcome of a case even before the merits of that case are heard. There will be litigation that directly, and indirectly, arises from Mr. Floyd’s passing. That litigation must remain undisturbed by my (or any other judiciary) opinion. After all, those matters will be adjudicated before judges who will preside and ultimately render judgment on each. 
Whether or not I am precluded from sharing my feelings, I assure you that the law is followed and that clients are treated with kindness. I want your experience in the Passaic County Surrogate’s Court to be the best government experience that you can have. In fact, when you visit the Passaic County Surrogate’s Court, it should not feel like a government experience at all. 
Even if things don’t go as you had envisioned, I want you to walk away feeling that you were fairly and compassionately treated. In the Passaic County Surrogate’s Court people are seen as a human beings and not as numbers. That is my way of making sure that my corner of the Government experience is a dignified one. 
Bernice Toledo is the Judge of the Passaic County Surrogate’s Court.
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