A state Supreme Court justice in an unusual decision ruled Friday that State Senate contender Joseph Fritz had enough valid signatures to qualify for the Sept. 9 Democratic primary, but threw him off the ballot because petitions Fritz collected personally had too many irregularities.

Justice John Leo's decision, made from the bench after three days of hearings, found that Fritz, who originally filed 1,403 signatures, had 1,002 legitimate signatures, just two over the 1,000-signature minimum for State Senate races, according to lawyers on both sides.

But Leo, a Democrat, ruled Fritz off the ballot in the 3rd District race because he had not properly initialed changes he made to petitions he carried himself, making all his petitions suspect.

"Fritz knew and had every reason to know that many of the signatures contained altered dates," Leo wrote in a 16-page opinion. Leo said Fritz's testimony was "unreliable, not persuasive and not worthy of belief."

Fritz, who collected more than 500 of the signatures, vowed Friday to appeal. He said he expected the Appellate Division, which is scheduled to hear the case Tuesday, to overturn Leo's decision.

"All of my signatures were good -- no one ever questioned that. It was a herculean task and I succeeded," said Fritz.

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Fritz said that in some cases where signatures on one page were taken on different dates, he did not properly initial them. But he emphasized that nothing improper was done and those signatures already had been disallowed. He said the rest of his petitions should not be thrown out for his inattention to detail.

Fritz said the lapses occurred in part because he is caring for his wife who is being treated for cancer.

Fritz is vying with Adrienne Esposito, who has the backing of Senate Democrats, for the Democratic nomination to face Islip Town Supervisor Tom Croci in November, the GOP nominee. Croci became a candidate last month when Islip Town board member Anthony Senft, a Conservative, dropped out of the race in the face of negative publicity over the dumping scandal at a town park in Brentwood. Croci did not return calls for comment Friday.

Mike Fricchione, Esposito's campaign manager, declined to comment directly on Leo's decision, saying, "it doesn't matter to us whether Joe Fritz is on the ballot." Fricchione said Esposito "will remain focused" on issues including the allegations of illegal dumping.The Suffolk Board of Elections earlier had found Fritz's petitions had 1,160 valid signatures, but Senate Democrats backing Esposito challenged the legitimacy of his petitions.

Fritz also challenged Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer's authorization, allowing Esposito to run in a Democratic primary even though she is not a party member, but his suit was dismissed.