Election 2011: Unusual fight for town judge

Southold Town Justice
Rudolph Bruer

Town Judge Rudolph Bruer finds himself on unfamiliar ground this fall — the campaign trail.

For the first time in 12 years, the veteran Republican is facing an active challenge, and this time it’s from a registered Republican.

Southold attorney Brian Hughes is running hard on the Democratic line against Mr. Bruer, a town justice since 1996.

Both men claim the experience and temperament required to wear judicial robes.

Mr. Bruer has practiced law in Southold for more than 40 years. Early in his career he worked as a trial attorney in New York for a firm specializing in negligence cases. He also represented the former Southold Savings Bank, which merged into the former North Fork Bank. He earned his law degree at Brooklyn Law School after graduating from St. Lawrence University.

He ran for re-election in 2003 with Republican, Conservative and Democratic support —“if you can believe that,” Mr. Bruer said. In 2007, his last time up for re-election, he ran unopposed.

“The office has changed since I started in 1996 and I’ve changed with it,” Mr. Bruer said. To accommodate the increasing number of Spanish-speaking people, the court has added bilingual court clerks, he said. The court also added Monday night sessions to deal with traffic and town code violations.

Southold Town Justice
Brian Hughes

Mr. Hughes, who has been a defense attorney in Southold for 25 years, says he has the better résumé.

“I have the experience and management skills to serve,” he said. A former NYC fireman and fire marshal, Mr. Hughes also served as an assistant state attorney general and both a bureau chief and an executive assistant district attorney in Brooklyn. A graduate of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, he earned his law degree at St. John’s University.

Mr. Hughes took a very public swipe at the incumbent in a Sept. 8 letter to the editor regarding the case of Paul Bellissimo, who was convicted of second-degree criminal trespass in December 2007 following a trial presided over by Mr. Bruer. That conviction was overturned this past May by a state appeals court, which found that Mr. Bruer had made several legal errors, including accepting into the record statements made by Mr. Bellissimo after he had asked to speak with an attorney and before the attorney arrived.

Rather than send the case back to Southold, the appellate judges dismissed the conviction “in the interest of justice.”

In his letter to the editor responding to a previous letter supporting the incumbent’s candidacy, Mr. Hughes, who represented Mr. Bellissimo at trial, wrote: “He should be deeply disturbed at what happened to this man. It took more than five years, great expense and much personal turmoil for this citizen to get justice.”

Mr. Hughes added that Mr. Bruer “simply refused to do what he was required by law to do … The seriousness of this case cannot be overstated. From the underlying errors by the trial judge to the corrective actions by the appeals court, this matter was noteworthy.”

That letter prompted Greenport resident James Dinizio to file a complaint with the state court system’s advisory committee on judicial ethics. Mr. Dinizo argues that Mr. Hughes violated the code of ethics that limits judicial candidates’ campaign comments to their background and experience.

“I thought it was underhanded,” said Mr. Dinizo, a registered Conservative and member of the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals. “There are over 20,000 people in Southold and he’s the one person who shouldn’t be discussing it.”

Mr. Dinizo said the advisory committee acknowledged receipt of his complaint but did not say when it might issue an opinion.

“I think it’s unethical and I hope they agree with me,” he said.

Mr. Dinizo doesn’t hide his displeasure with Mr. Hughes’ efforts to wrest the Conservative line away from the incumbent. In Conservative and Independence Party primaries in September, Mr. Bruer easily beat back the challenge, taking better than 80 percent of the vote on each line.

“We had to work our butts off so he could get his 25 votes,” he said. “How can you stand up with all those people? He’s a Republican running as a Democrat who tried to get the Conservative and Independence Party lines. He’s got to have some standards, some principals.”

Mr. Hughes dismissed the complaint as an electioneering ploy.

“I find it kind of suspect that only now, on the eve of an election, is he complaining about a letter published seven weeks ago,” he said. “I stand by my letter, and any complaint about it will wind up in the trash where it belongs.”

He added, “If Mr. Dinizio decides to act as a straw man for my opponent, so be it. Any claim that Mr. Bruer cannot respond to criticism is frivolous. He’s had ample time and opportunity to reply.”

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