A judge today gave leaders of the Erie County Democratic Party the go-ahead to conduct a mandated party reorganization meeting tonight.
County Clerk David J. Swarts this afternoon said he will not appeal the ruling to a higher court. Swarts is attempting to wrest the chairmanship from G. Steven Pigeon.
State Supreme Court Justice Christopher J. Burns denied Swarts' bid to delay the meeting set for 7 p.m. today in Shea's Performing Arts Center, where 2,000 district committee members will vote on the party chairmanship.
Burns, who conducted a spirited hearing Tuesday, ruled that state election law and a history of prior court rulings make it clear that the courts should not interfere in the inner workings of political parties. He called Swarts' three-day-old lawsuit premature.
However, Burns warned attorneys for both Pigeon and Swarts that his ruling "should not be seen as a victory for party politics as usual."
"Instead, it should be seen as a caution to both sides to evaluate the openness with which their committee will be run."
Both Swarts and his attorneys said they would make a decision by this afternoon on whether to seek an expedited appellate court review of the political legal fight before tonight's reorganization meeting.
Mark M. Jasen and John M. Curran, attorneys for the Pigeon forces, said the Burns ruling will allow the meeting to go ahead as scheduled. But James M. Shaw, Swarts' chief lawyer, said that at the very least they will all be back in court if problems develop at tonight's session.
Burns rejected Swarts' complaints about Pigeon's not adequately notifying all party committeemen and women elected in the Sept. 12 primary about tonight's meeting and said he will abide by Pigeon's assurances that all sections of the party will have "equal access" to express themselves at the meeting.
On the issue of Swarts' demand for a secret vote on the chairmanship tonight, Burns said the court "cannot interfere unless or until an improper vote occurs" at the party meeting and further court hearings are required.
Burns also pointedly told both sides in the battle that "the political process is about considering the voices and opinions of each and every voter, whether that vote is cast by a registered voter or a committee person who has been elected to voice the interest of his or her district."
Pigeon was not at today's brief court session and could not be reached to comment.
Tuesday, Swarts' attorneys complained to the judge that Pigeon was trying to "assert himself in place of" the party's county committee with what they called a "pocket veto" of Swarts' leadership bid.
Curran and Jasen, appearing for Pigeon and Erie County Democratic Election Commissioner Lawrence F. Adamczyk, a Pigeon ally who is secretary of the Democratic Party County Committee, argued that Swarts has to wait until after the reorganization meeting to challenge its legality.
During a spirited exchange of views, Jasen and Curran reminded Swarts attorney Dennis E. Ward that he had adopted Pigeon's procedural positions in defending the party's county leadership in a somewhat similar court case 10 years ago.
Adamczyk testified that last Wednesday -- in his party role and not his Election Board role -- he mailed out meeting notices and other documents to 3,879 committee members either elected during the Sept. 12 primary or potential victors whose races were not yet certified.