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Monday, August 23, 2010

Oath of office must be timely filed

Oath of office must be timely filed
Formal Opinion of the Attorney General, 98-F6

The filing of a timely oath of office is critical to an individual’s lawfully holding public office. The inter-relationship of the eligibility of a candidate to assume elective office and the filing of the required oath was addressed by the Attorney General in his Formal Opinion 98-F6.

A candidate for election to the Supreme Court, if elected, would become qualified for the position on January 24. His term of office, however, would commence on January 1. If elected, could the candidate lawfully file the required oath of office upon becoming qualified for the post on January 24?

Pointing out that Section 30 of the Public Officers Law states that an elective officer must file his or her oath of office within thirty days of the beginning of his or her term of office, the Attorney General concluded that in this instance filing the required oath between January 24, and January 30, would meet the Constitutional mandate [Section 1, Article XIII] that a public officer file his or her oath before undertaking the duties of the office.

What happens if the required oath is not filed within the 30-day period allowed under Section 30? The office is declared vacant.*

Where are such oaths to be filed?

1. The oath of every State officer must be filed with the Secretary of State; the oath of a municipal officer, including an officer of a school district, with the clerk of the jurisdiction.

2. The oath of all other officers, including library trustees, and officers of a BOCES, is to be filed with the county clerk of the county in which he or she resides. In addition, judicial officers of the unified court system must file an additional oath of office with the Office of Court Administration.

As noted above, the officer’s failure to file a timely oath results in a vacancy in the office by operation of law as the ruling in Vetere v Ponce demonstrates. Patrick A. Vetere, ready to commence his third four-year term as a member of the Harrison Town Council and Village Trustee, failed to file his oath of office within the 30-day period expiring February 1, 1996 as required by Section 30 of the Public Officers Law.

The town clerk declared Vetere’s office vacant on February 19 because of Vetere’s failure to file his oath of office. Although Vetere filed an oath of office on February 23, a few weeks later the Town Council and Village Trustees held a special meeting at which Benjamin DeForce was appointed to the vacancy.

DeForce subsequently resigned from the position and Vetere was appointed to the vacancy. Vetere then attempted to have the “certificate of vacancy” prepared by the town clerk on February 19 annulled and sought a declaratory judgment by a State Supreme Court justice that he was now entitled to a full four-year term of office as a result his reelection the previous November.

Supreme Court Justice Nicholas Colabella ruled that there was no statutory authority for issuing such a judgment. This means that Vetere will have to run for election for the remainder of the term to which he had already been elected. The decision states that “notwithstanding equitable considerations and the [Town’s] consent to reinstatement, the court can only direct reinstatement in the event it finds the petitioner was improperly removed as a matter of law.”

As Vetere’s removal was held to be proper, the Court dismissed his petition.

* Section 30 excuses the failure to file the oath within the 30-day period if the individual “was on active duty in the armed forces of the United States and absent from the county of his [or her] residence at the time of his [or her] election or appointment....”

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