On December 6, amidst the ongoing legal clash for the fate of the District 23 Assembly seat, Queens Supreme Court Justice Joseph Risi ruled in favor of incumbent Assemblywoman Stacey Pheffer Amato and ordered the New York City Board of Elections to accept 94 previously invalidated ballots as valid – a decision which sent shockwaves throughout the area.
The majority of the ballots now deemed valid were not sealed properly when they were initially submitted to the Board of Elections. This decision to accept dozens of improperly sealed ballots is especially controversial because, less than a month prior, a judge in upstate New York ruled just the opposite in a similar case. That case (Mannion vs. Shiroff, in Onondaga County) saw Justice Scott J. Delconte rule definitively that “the failure to at least partially seal an absentee affirmation envelope was explicitly identified by the Legislature as a fatal defect,” citing Election Law § 9-209 [i]. Judge Delconte thus ruled that improperly sealed ballots cannot be admitted into the count to decide the winner in NYS Senate District 50. This is very much the opposite of what Judge Risi ruled this week, when he said that invalidated ballots will be accepted in our local race.
The main difference between the upstate case and our own is that in the upstate case it was a Republican, Rebecca Shiroff, who was asking that those unsealed ballots be validated. In our case, it’s the Democratic candidate who’s asking that the unsealed ballots be validated, and we’re seeing a different result coming from the powers that be. In a society where many people are already feeling their faith in our elections shaken, this decision does not send a comforting message.
To add to this discomforting feeling, the clerk who signed off on the Queens Supreme Court ruling was none other than the mother of the plaintiff. Stacey Pheffer Amato’s mother, Audrey Pheffer, was the very person who signed the court documents to declare those ballots valid, signing right under the judge’s name. If this does not represent a gross conflict of interest I don’t know what does.
Judge Delconte’s decision to consider improperly sealed ballots as having a “fatal defect” – and thus inadmissible – is in line with election law. These laws exist for a reason. We are a nation built upon laws, and once we start to pick and choose which laws we want to follow, we begin eroding the very foundations that this nation was built upon. We cannot pick and choose when and where to employ the law based upon the political affiliations of the people involved in a case.
I have every ounce of faith that Colonel Sullivan will appeal this ruling, and that he will be sworn in as the NYS Assembly Representative for the 23rd District. I have every ounce of faith that our justice system, however flawed it may be, will rectify this misstep by the Queens Supreme Court. If not, I fear we may be descending down a slippery slope of double standards and injustice that we as a nation may never return from.