State’s highest court upholds Fishers Island Town Board seat

TIM KELLY PHOTO | Fishers Island Justice Louisa Evans, shown taking the oath of office from Justice Rudolph Bruer last year, will continue to serve as a judge and Town Board member.

The New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, has ruled that a state statute giving the Fishers Island town justice a seat on the Town Board is a rational approach to providing legislative representation to islanders who live closer to Connecticut than they do to the North Fork.

In a unanimous decision released Thursday, the seven justices upheld two lower court rulings that also endorsed the judge’s unique dual responsibilities.

The decision came in response to a challenge lodged by former Democratic Councilman Dan Ross, who made the case the central issue in his unsuccessful 2009 election run against incumbent Island Justice Louisa Evans, a Republican.

Mr. Ross, who was unavailable for comment this week, said state law required him to be a candidate to challenge the requirement that the judge live on Fishers Island. Had he won the seat, the Mattituck attorney would have had to establish island residency by Jan. 1, 2010.

He argued that the island’s 289 full time residences, who make up only 1.5 percent of the town’s population, enjoy representation out of proportion with their numbers.

In rejecting that argument, the Court of Appeals said the residency requirement imposes “only reasonable, nondiscriminatory restrictions on the rights of Southold voters.”

The court also pointed out that the justice is chosen by all Southold voters, not just island residents and any Southold resident can run for the seat.

It further noted that in two similar cases, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the argument that residency requirements violate the Constitution’s equal protection clause.

“The Supreme Court recognized that a state has a legitimate interest in assuring an elected representative is familiar with the unique problems of a specific geographic area,” the Court of Appeals decision said.

In a previous interview, Mr. Ross noted that if he failed to prevail in the state courts he could petition the U.S. Supreme Court to hear his appeal, but that he has not made a decision on that.

Riverhead attorney Patrick Fife, who represents two Fishers Island residents who opposed Mr. Ross’s candidacy, said the ruling “hit the nail on the head. The justice is a representative of the town, not just of the island, and that’s what makes it constitutional.”

He added that his clients, Arthur Walsh and Nina Schmid, “are very happy that their efforts to have their long standing historic connection to town government is maintained.”

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