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Slates for State Supreme Court engulfed in uncertainty

Delegates from across Western New York's eight counties will gather Monday to choose among 11 people vying for State Supreme Court nominations this year, in a process that by all accounts has not yet been settled.

The delegates, elected in last week's primary election, will caucus by party to select their candidates for three vacancies. But historically, the party selections hinge on the chairmen of the Erie County Democratic and Republican parties, who acknowledge they have not yet made their decisions.

While at least one Democrat and one Republican still might receive bipartisan backing or "cross-endorsement," no agreements have been reached. Both Leonard R. Lenihan, the Democratic chairman, and Robert E. Davis, his Republican counterpart, say they have not discussed bipartisan backing and are prepared to run candidates without any deals after selecting from among the six Democrats and five Republicans in the race.

"We're prepared to run three candidates," Davis said. "The nice problem is sorting out three qualified candidates from the group."

Lenihan says he considers cross-endorsements "unlikely."

"I feel it will be a great Democratic year," he said.

Democrats seeking the post are Erie County Judge Timothy J. Drury; City Judges Robert T. Russell, Diane Y. Devlin and James A.W. McLeod; and attorneys Lynn A. Clarke and Gerald J. Whalen. Most sources say Lenihan would like to run Russell, who has been interested in a State Supreme Court nomination for years and is receiving strong support from African-American Democrats.

South Buffalo Democrats have been lobbying heavily for Whalen, while Devlin has the support of the influential Delaware Club of North Buffalo. But most sources say Clarke also has been making a case with strong support from an array of political and union constituents.

Interested Republicans are Tonawanda Town Justice Frank Caruso, Eden Trustee Timothy J. Walker, Amherst Town Attorney E. Thomas Jones, former Family Court Judge Deborah A. Haendiges and Amherst Prosecutor John L. Michalski. Davis so far is committed only to Caruso, a former Democrat who competed unsuccessfully last year.

"I talked to four [Western New York county] chairmen, . . . and all are very, very high on Frank Caruso," Davis said. "Now we'll go through the process to sort it out."

Much of what the major-party chairmen decide could hinge on the choices of minor parties, whose actions can influence the often crucial factor of ballot position for the candidates.

Ralph C. Lorigo, chairman of the Erie County Conservative Party, also is expected to choose Caruso and said he would approve a cross-endorsement for Russell and Caruso. That combination is expected to form the basis of any potential cross-endorsement this year.

Anthony L. Orsini, chairman of the Erie County Independence Party, said he is backing Whalen but remains undecided beyond that. He also acknowledged his convention may prove competitive because his slate of judicial delegates was challenged on several fronts in last week's primary.

The Independence Party's convention is scheduled for Sunday evening.

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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