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Robert McCarthy: Pigeon's trailblazing legal drama

Perhaps as much as he excelled in telling the stories of Buffalo’s poor and downtrodden, the late columnist Ray Hill of The Buffalo News appreciated compelling courtroom drama.
“Olympians,” he called two noted legal giants no longer with us – John H. Stenger and Victor T. Fuzak – in a 1984 column detailing their 20-year (yes, 20 years) battle over Erie County’s 1970 decision to abort plans for a new domed stadium in Lancaster.

“People who drop by to watch leave with the sense they have seen perfection or something close to it,” Hill said of the proceedings that wound their way through the courtroom of Justice Irving Fudeman.

Legal dogma combined with a pair of professionals at the top of their game. Hill could not resist the story.

It’s now hoped the public corruption trial of former Erie County Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon will not drag on for two decades. But already it is breaking new and fascinating legal ground as the case tests the limits of the state’s power of search and seizure in an age of new technology.

Pigeon attorney Paul J. Cambria, following his latest U.S. District Court appearance with his client a few days ago, says a host of issues surround the seizure of cellphone and laptop records from his client’s home almost 2½ years ago.

He argues that such devices and their presumption of privacy now equate with the sanctity of one’s home.

“Since the advent of cellphones and laptops,” he said a few days ago, “you have more private information on cellphones and laptops than in your home. There is the highest degree of privacy in your cellphone and laptop.”

The issue now finds itself before the U.S. Supreme Court in a separate case, he noted, and may play a key role in determining the admissibility of emails between Pigeon and many others in New York politics. Those electronic missives lie at the heart of three separate cases in which Pigeon faces felony charges.

Other new and fascinating concepts are entering the case. Search warrants obtained in Erie County Court by the state were technically executed via Google in California. Cambria and the representatives of Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman now clash over what that all means.

Another argument revolves around whether a judge must specifically approve search warrants for a cellphone.

“These are groundbreaking legal issues that need to be investigated,” he said.

Cambria notes that his firm of Lipsitz Green Scime Cambria is no stranger to delving into uncharted territory, dating to the days of his late partner – Herald Price Fahringer. “We pride ourselves in this office in coming up with unique positions,” he said.

Pigeon has always maintained that his controversial fundraising methods never violated rules, and Cambria will make that case in a trial that appears to lie far ahead on the calendar because of the myriad legal preliminaries.

When it does transpire, however, the Pigeon trial will expose some seamy aspects of New York politics. It will show money at the heart of the ugliness – whether or not it was legally raised.

Already, Cambria and his team have wrestled with Schneiderman’s office in fascinating legal maneuvering before State Supreme Court Justice Donald F. Cerio Jr. From a view in the spectator seats a few months ago, the Madison County jurist assigned to the case seemed enthralled by top-notch attorneys tangling over complicated – and important – legal concepts.

Cambria will have his work cut out for him. Assistant Attorneys General Diane M. LaVallee and Susan H. Sadinsky will prove worthy opponents. LaVallee may be best known for successfully prosecuting a 1979 cold case murder from Lackawanna. She ran for district attorney in 2008.

When the Pigeon case begins before Cerio in state court and Judge Richard J. Arcara in U.S. District Court, an epic performance of Stenger and Fuzak proportions will unfold. Once again, the best of the best tackling a case that will command statewide attention.

If Ray Hill were still around, he couldn’t resist this one either.

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