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Friend of the Court

Thu, 06/22/2023 - 09:23


Political ties run deep in Suffolk, and more than a few people here have speculated that an old-boy network is behind the extraordinary fines a State Supreme Court justice dealing with efforts to block East Hampton Town’s effort to regulate its own airport has imposed on the town.

The justice, Paul J. Baisley Jr., also was the one who levied a nearly quarter-million-dollar penalty on the town in a case involving a portion of Napeague ocean shoreline, and, as if that was not enough, ordered more than 6,000 East Hampton beach-driving permits revoked. Then, last month, Justice Baisley hit the town with another financial slap — $250,000 plus attorneys’ fees in the airport suit.

Long before Mr. Baisley became a judge, he was a Suffolk County assistant district attorney, then was a bureau chief there. During his time in the D.A.’s office, he worked alongside James M. Catterson Jr., the late father of the airport plaintiffs’ lawyer, James M. Catterson III, who later worked as a deputy county attorney in the Suffolk office himself. The younger Mr. Catterson won an election to be a Supreme Court justice the same year as Justice Baisley, 1998. Mr. Catterson, who also represents the Napeague homeowners associations that sued the town, was on the bench at the same time as Justice Baisley until 2004.

Meanwhile, noise from flights to and from the airport continues to build. Jet aircraft most days approach its runway after passing low over East Hampton Village. Helicopters seem to be everywhere, including over Southampton and parts of the North Fork. Justice Baisley’s order from last month blocks the town from imposing restrictions on flights, even on a short-term basis, without completing a lengthy environmental study first, which itself would almost certainly be the subject of litigation brought by the helicopter companies. The town is appealing, but for now, the public disturbance from too-frequent overhead flights go on. Tellingly, perhaps, Justice Baisley insists his order correctly “prohibits the town from closing the airport or taking any steps to effectuate the closure of the airport.”

None of the Catterson-Baisley biographical points are a smoking gun, but the sums that Mr. Baisley has ordered East Hampton Town to pay are unusual, to say the least. This shared history — and high-dollar penalties — raise the question if more than the administration of impartial justice is a factor.

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