Republican primary challenger Ray Perini on Wednesday began his legal battle to oust Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota from the ballot as litigation about the legality of the county's 12-year term-limit law remained before an appeals court.
Lawyers for Perini and Spota sparred for more than a half-hour before State Supreme Court Justice Joseph Farneti in Riverhead over the challenge to Spota's eligibility to seek a fourth four-year term. Farneti reserved a decision.
State Supreme Court Justice Ralph Gazzillo ruled last year that the local term limit law does not apply to the district attorney, county clerk and sheriff because their offices are included in the state constitution. Civic activist Peter Nichols has brought a suit to the Supreme Court's appellate division seeking the right to intervene and reinstate the term limit law as it applies to Spota. The appeals court has agreed to consider the case.
Martin Connor, Perini's election lawyer, said that because Nichols' standing to bring the suit is still in dispute, "All we're looking to get is a judicial finding on the merits, if not in this court, then appeals courts next week," when appellate judges are set to hear elections cases.
Spota's attorney Thomas Garry said Perini's papers were flawed and that neither the Suffolk Board of Elections nor Farneti have the authority to overrule an existing decision by another State Supreme Court judge.
The elections board's role, said Garry, is to deal with issues such as challenges to petition signatures and residency. He said Perini is trying to circumvent the existing court ruling with his challenge.
"He feels the board of elections can ignore a Supreme Court decision, a curious position to take for someone seeking to be the chief law enforcement official of the county," Garry said.
Rudolph Baptiste, an assistant Suffolk County attorney, said the elections board felt it was "not equipped" to make a legal decision on the term limit issue.
Garry said Perini's challenge failed to include as parties the sheriff and the clerk, who could be adversely impacted by a decision. Nor did Perini include the political parties -- Republican, Democratic, Conservative and Independence -- that have chosen Spota "as their standard-bearer" in the election, Garry said.
Should an appeals court issue an adverse ruling after Election Day, Garry said, the proper recourse would be for the state attorney general to take action to remove Spota from office.
Connor, Perini's attorney, said the state election law clearly permits Perini to raise the issue of Spota's eligibility immediately. "The state clearly gives Mr. Perini standing," Connor said. "And the parties have a right to get an official decision. That's a not a devious idea. It's a constitutional issue."
Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman, said Perini "is just trying to bamboozle his way into court because the decisions so far do not fit with his career planning."