Spin Cycle

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New York's DAs-for-life and the term-limit question

Richard Brown of Queens is only one of

Richard Brown of Queens is only one of several long-term incumbents in DA offices around New York. (Credit: John Roca, 2012)

For a variety of possible reasons, a DA-for-life phenomenon -- or something close to it -- is common in New York State. Brooklyn's District Attorney Charles Hynes, who is seeking re-election again, took office in 1990; Robert Johnson has been Bronx district attorney. since 1989, and Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, since 1991. In Manhattan, Robert Morgenthau served in the job for 35 years, and Nassau’s late Denis Dillon, for 31 years, before Kathleen Rice unseated him in 2005.

In Suffolk, third-term district attorney, Thomas Spota, and two co-plaintiffs won a court ruling that, pending possible appeals, makes him immune to the county's term limits on other elected posts.

Opponents of mandatory term limits, generally, argue that voters can always change incumbents at the next election, and the choice should be up to the people.

The traditional "choice" argument doesn't work in this case.

Spota has won major-party cross-endorsement in the past -- as have his fellow court challengers of the county limits, County Clerk Judith Pascale and Sheriff Vincent DeMarco. So if you want to oppose them in the next election for extending their own stay, you may not have a substantial ballot option to do so.

Since major-party leaders in the county are firmly behind the view that these three offices are exempt from Suffolk's term rules because of how they're etched into the state Constitution, they're likely to cross-endorse again -- in effect curbing voter choice.

An interesting twist: The Conservative Party, which locally has cross-endorsed Spota, boasts on its state website how it helped push for term limits in New York City and opposed their subsequent extension to accommodate incumbents (such as Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn).

Note also, however, that the city never tried to impose term limits on DA's when the law was imposed on other offices 20 years ago.

Photo: Queens District Attorney Richard Brown.

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