A Long Island judge has ripped the time-honored manipulation of New York’s judicial ballot by political bosses in a case involving an Amherst lawyer and his minor party candidacy against Republican Sen. Mark J. Grisanti of Buffalo.
State Supreme Court Justice Jerry Garguilo ruled in Suffolk County earlier this month that the Working Families Party cannot switch attorney Gregory L. Davis into a judicial slot on eastern Long Island from his Working Families candidacy in the Buffalo-based 60th Senate District. He questioned a process in which political bosses often nominate lawyers like Davis as “placeholders,” then name them for judge in a distant district when more favorable candidates emerge for the original office from the September primary.
“The process that’s been uncovered in connection with this argument appears to the court to be an abuse of the process by which serious candidates vie for public office, in particular the office of State Supreme Court judge,” Garguilo ruled, according to the court transcript. “I seriously doubt there is any debate that in the event that Mr. Davis were elected, and I realize he’s only on one line here, he has absolutely no intentions, whatsoever, to accept the office.”
The ruling marks the first time in any political observers’ memory that the process – the same maneuver that allowed Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl P. Paladino to run on the Conservative line in 2010 – has attracted such negative judicial scrutiny.
The Buffalo News reported in 2011 that statewide political leaders similarly manipulated the ballot eight times in 2010. In machinations with tangible political consequences in that election, bosses of several parties – often working in collaboration – inserted candidates into judicial races after getting them to withdraw from races for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and state senator.
The extent of the practice – designed to strengthen major party candidates like Paladino by awarding them an extra line on the ballot – drew harsh criticism at the time.
“It plays into the notion that the New York trial court bench remains a political football, a chit to be used by political players to manipulate either the race for the bench itself or other races,” said James J. Sample, associate professor at Hofstra Law School and a longtime critic of the state’s judicial election system. “This sequence reflects the fact that the New York trial bench, which should be above the fray, is as political as any trial court bench in America.”
The practice is also a function of New York’s system that allows major party candidates to represent minor parties without officially joining, a practice permitted in only a handful of other states.
According to Erie County Republican Elections Commissioner Ralph M. Mohr, that’s exactly what Working Families did with Davis, a registered Republican who doesn’t live in the district and whom Mohr said was recruited by former Erie County Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon.
Mohr, who argued the case before Garguilo Oct. 8 in Suffolk County, said the idea was for Working Families to embrace whichever Democrat emerged from the Sept. 13 primary. He noted Davis was selected for the Working Families line because as an attorney, he could be legally nominated to State Supreme Court – essentially the only way (other than death) to be removed from the ballot after the primary.
Pigeon was a prime force behind the Democratic candidacy of former Erie County Legislature Chairman Charles M. Swanick in the Sept. 13 primary.
“He was aligned with Pigeon, who was aligned with Swanick,” Mohr said of Davis, explaining the idea was for Davis to decline the Senate nomination in favor of the judicial slot, opening the line for Swanick.
But attorney Michael L. Amodeo won the primary, spoiling the original plan. Mohr said Davis then never declined or accepted the judicial nomination – part of his argument in the courtroom in Riverhead,
“My suspicion was that he was on the ballot for Senate, but it didn’t work out the way they wanted, and he just didn’t care,” Mohr said of Davis.
Though Erie County Democratic Elections Commissioner Dennis E. Ward submitted papers disagreeing with his Republican counterpart, Mohr argued that he and Ward had officially certified Davis for the Working Families line.
“I wanted the judge to be aware there was basically a game being played here,” Mohr said, adding he opposed any effort to substitute Amodeo for Davis on the minor party line.
“Once he heard that, he said this was not right and realized it basically was a manipulation of the system,” he added.
Pigeon said he would have no comment other than to accuse Mohr of political hypocrisy.
“I find it humorous that Ralph Mohr, a master of political intrigue and treachery, would say that,” he said.
Davis, who served on the board of the Western Regional Off Track Betting Corp. when Pigeon was Democratic chairman, did not return a call seeking comment.
Working Familes officials point out that the Court of Appeals has upheld the process in the past. And Jesse Lenney, the party’s upstate political director, noted the process has been used for years.
“Most states have much simpler processes to allow minor parties to place candidates on the ballot,” he said. “New York’s system is unnecessarily complicated, and sometimes results in strange outcomes, but it’s the one we’ve got.”
Indeed, during the court proceedings, Working Families attorney Alexander Rabb told the judge the substitution process has proven common throughout the years for minor parties.
The effect of Garguilo’s ruling – notwithstanding ramifications for the 10th Judicial District ballot on Long Island – is that Amodeo now runs with no minor party line in the Nov. 6 general election. The ruling marks another blow to Amodeo, who was also recently shunned by the New York State United Teachers union – originally projected to financially support him.