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Appeals court restores Democrat Kate Browning to Suffolk legislature ballot

Democrat Kate Browning, shown, can seek election in

Democrat Kate Browning, shown, can seek election in the Suffolk County Legislature's 3rd District, according to an appeals court ruling. Browning faces Republican James Mazzarella. Credit: James Escher

An appellate court ruled unanimously Wednesday that former Suffolk County Legis. Kate Browning is eligible to run for her old seat in the 3rd Legislative District.

A state Supreme Court Appellate Division panel reversed a lower court ruling that knocked Browning, a Democrat, off the ballot because she was term-limited in 2017 under county law after holding the seat for 12 consecutive years.

The panel of four judges ruled the county’s term limit law "does not expressly impose any total or lifetime term limit," or prohibit legislators who hit term limits from returning to office after a break in service.

County Republicans are considering an appeal, party chairman Jesse Garcia said.

The decision put Browning back in the race against Republican Jim Mazzarella, who otherwise would have been unopposed.

A special election is scheduled for May 25 to fill the seat for the remainder of this year. The seat opened after Republican Rudy Sunderman's resignation on March 21.

In November, voters will elect a candidate for a full two-year term.

"I’ve fought hard my whole life, and I’ll keep up the fight, because this community needs a fighter," Browning said in a statement in which she accused Mazzarella of "trying to deny voters a choice."

In a statement, Garcia said the "galling decision" by the appeals court "runs counter to the intention of voters who went to the polls and clearly made their feelings known that they wanted to limit the term of office of their county legislators to no more than 12 years."

Garcia was referring to a 1993 referendum that approved the term limits law.

Browning, 61, of Shirley, is Babylon Town’s code enforcement director.

Mazzarella, 55, of Moriches, is secretary-treasurer of Long Island Public Service Employees union Local 342.

Mazzarella also has the Conservative Party ballot line.

After Browning got into the race, Republican voters John Doyle of Shirley and Melissa Schlosberg of Center Moriches, backed by the Suffolk GOP, filed a lawsuit against Browning, the Suffolk Board of Elections and the county to remove Browning from the ballot.

The suit alleged she was ineligible for the seat because she already had held it for 12 years.

Acting state Supreme Court Justice James Hudson sided with Republicans last week, saying the county law was "silent" on the issue of term-limited legislators returning to office.

Democratic officials had argued that Browning could run again after a break in service because the county law only bars legislators from serving more than 12 "consecutive" years.

Browning, Democratic Board of Elections Commissioner Anita Katz and the Suffolk County Attorney’s office appealed Hudson’s ruling.

County Republican leaders noted it was unusual for the county to get involved in legal battles to knock candidates off the ballot.

Legis. Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst), the minority leader, called the county attorney's involvement a "misuse and abuse of government resources."

Suffolk County Attorney Dennis Cohen said the office filed an appeal because the county was a party in the lawsuit.

Also, the "case involved an interpretation of a county statute, and on behalf of the county, we took a position" that a term-limited legislator can return to office, Cohen said.

Susan Lerner, executive director of good government group Common Cause New York, said the county attorney’s office’s appeal had a "legitimate public policy interest" because the legal ruling has "ramifications beyond just this one contest."

"It’s related to county law, not just one particular candidate," Lerner said.

The county legislature has 10 Democrats, 6 Republicans and one Conservative.

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