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Appeals judge questions basis for Ravitch appointment

Richard Ravitch / AP File Photo / December

Richard Ravitch / AP File Photo / December 4, 2008

As attorneys for Gov. David A. Paterson insisted he had the constitutional right to appoint Richard Ravitch lieutenant governor, an appellate court judge suggested Thursday that nothing would prevent Paterson from appointing a convicted criminal to the post.

"Suppose he says the most persuasive guy around is Bernie Madoff or David Berkowitz," state Supreme Court Justice Steven Fisher asked Paterson attorney Kathleen Sullivan during an Appellate Division hearing in Brooklyn.

"Is there anything in your argument, in your view, that the governor could not appoint such people?"

Sullivan replied that "the court of public opinion" would prevent such a scenario, but admitted there would be no constitutional check preventing it.

The exchange occurred during 90 minutes of oral arguments over whether Ravitch, a former Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman whom Paterson named lieutenant governor on July 8, can serve in the post until the Appellate Division rules on the legality of the appointment.

The state had been without a lieutenant governor since March 2008, when Paterson ascended from the position upon Gov. Eliot Spitzer's resignation. Though the state constitution does not specify how a lieutenant governor vacancy could be filled before a gubernatorial election, Paterson has said state law allows him to make the unprecedented appointment.

Since Paterson has pledged that Ravitch won't preside over the Senate while the legal case on his legitimacy is pending, Justice Randall Eng questioned the necessity of Ravitch holding the position until then.

"The status quo of no lieutenant governor, why can't that hold for the next three weeks?" asked Eng. "Why is this necessary?"

Sullivan framed her response around the idea that New York is in "dire straits" and Ravitch's expertise is needed now. "The fiscal crisis ... while the Senate is out of session, requires executive leadership," she said.

But attorneys for Sens. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) and Pedro Espada (D-Bronx) suggested Ravitch could easily assist Paterson without holding a constitutional office. "If Ravitch is going to come in and save the state, he can do it from any position he wants -- except one," Skelos attorney Peter Lewis said.

The four-judge panel is expected to issue a ruling on the issues raised in Thursday's hearing "very shortly," Fisher said.

Oral arguments on the constitutionality of the Ravitch appointment, which Skelos and Espada brought in Nassau County earlier this month, are scheduled for Aug. 18 at the Appellate Division.

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