N.Y. Top Court Considers DA’s Term Limit

District Attorney Thomas Spota
District Attorney Thomas Spota

New York’s highest court is expected to rule within days on whether a longtime Long Island prosecutor has to drop his re-election bid because it conflicts with a local term-limit law.

The Court of Appeals heard arguments Wednesday over whether Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota is bound by the 12-year limit set by local voters in 1993. His attorney Thomas Garry said the top county prosecutors have state authority to enforce the penal law and only the state can set their qualifications.

“The state has not said word one on whether there should be limits or not,” Judge Robert Smith said. “The question is why isn’t the county then free to do whatever it wants?”

Garry said the Court of Appeals in past rulings recognized that district attorneys are constitutional officers of the state. He said that term-limit restrictions attempted by states for their members of Congress were rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court as improperly setting qualifications.

An attorney representing Raymond Perini, running against Spota in a Sept. 10 Republican primary, emphasized that the state constitution and statutes are silent on prosecutor term limits. Martin Connor argued that the counties where prosecutors are elected can impose them.

“They didn’t specify you had to serve fewer than 12 years,” Judge Susan Read said. “Why doesn’t this cut against you?”

Connor said the term limits don’t affect the powers of the office, and if the Legislature wanted to prohibit term limits it could but hasn’t. The district attorney is both a state constitutional officer and local official, and county voters adopted the 12-year limits.

Attorneys for both sides said they knew of no other New York counties that had done the same thing. And Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman questioned whether there were policy implications if all 62 counties set various term limits.

A midlevel court previously split 3-2 in the case, with the majority concluding Spota could run again.

Spota has Democratic, independent and conservative cross-endorsements. But Perini said he believes he’ll win the Republican primary even if Spota stays in, that Suffolk County voters want to have a choice.

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