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A Steuben County minister's bid to take the Republican line away from U.S. Rep. Amory Houghton may have come to an end Friday in a courtroom.

State Supreme Court Justice Henry Scudder ruled that more than a third of the election petition signatures collected by the Rev. Jim Pierce of Horseheads were invalid, and the remaining 1,174 were not sufficient to keep his name on the ballot for the September GOP primary.

Scudder's decision came after lawyers for both sides -- with an assist from the lawyer for the state Board of Elections -- reviewed hundreds of signatures and found more than 600 to be invalid for reasons that included the wrong date.

Pierce's lawyer said he plans to appeal the ruling. In the meantime, Pierce has already secured the Right to Life line in November.

In a statement from his hometown of Corning, Houghton chastised Pierce for his mistake.

"When you enter a new field of work, as I had to learn in 1986, you better get the basics right. Petitions give tremendous leeway to candidates, but there are rules, and one of the rules is that you follow carefully the required petition process. A petition is a sworn affidavit."

Houghton's supporters brought the suit to force Pierce from the ballot after the State Board of Elections voted not to exclude him.

That brought the issue to court in Steuben County where Scudder heard a full day of argument Friday between John Ciampoli, the lawyer representing Houghton's backers and Michael Regan, Pierce's lawyer.

Ciampoli led the court through a nearly line-by-line examination of the signatures on 248 pages of petitions, with Scudder validating some and voiding others as Ciampoli requested.

Signatures with invalid or improper dates -- one was dated in 1997 -- were voided immediately while Scudder reserved decision on several addresses Ciampoli said were questionable.

After poring through the first of four volumes of petition papers -- and after ruling several whole pages invalid because of deficiencies in the witness statements -- Scudder asked the two opposing lawyers and Todd Valentine from the State Board of Elections to go through the remaining sheets and agree which ones he would likely void on similar grounds.

Regan then agreed that 367 more signatures should be invalidated, but maintained his right to appeal. He told Scudder those signatures met the judge's criteria for exclusion, but Regan said he did not necessarily agree with the ruling.

Another 90 minutes of line-by-line review ended with Scudder calling for a count by his clerk of the number of names voided and a conference in chambers.

When he finished counting, 625 names were removed from petitions and Pierce was removed from the primary ballot.

Regan said he and Pierce would decide their next step on Monday.

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