The state's highest court ruled on Thursday that Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota is free to run for a fourth term, throwing out the county's 12-year term limit as it applies to its chief prosecutor.
"We conclude that the county is without the power to regulate the number of terms the district attorney may serve," the Court of Appeals ruled in a 6-1 decision.
The ruling allows Spota, a Democrat, to remain on the ballot as the cross-endorsed candidate of the Democratic, Republican, Conservative and Independence parties. But he still faces a Sept. 10 primary challenge from Republican criminal attorney Ray Perini, who had sought to oust him from the race in court.
Perini vowed to aggressively pursue his primary campaign. "Now we know that Mr. Spota will be running as a Democrat in a Republican primary, it's time we debate before Sept. 10," he said. "One of the questions he has to answer is, did he want to be district attorney so badly that he was willing to disregard the will of more than 70 percent of the voters," referring to the 1993 referendum in which county term limits were approved.
Spota declined to comment on the decision or Perini's call for a debate, referring comment to Richard Schaffer, the Suffolk Democratic chairman.
"I guess we should thank Mr. Perini for getting us what he wanted: a decision on the merits," Schaffer said. The party leader said he'd be "happy to talk to Mr. Perini about a debate," but added, "his dispute is not with Mr. Spota, but with the Court of Appeals."
In making its ruling, the high court upheld the finding of two lower courts and found "the office of district attorney is plainly subject to comprehensive regulation by state law, leaving the county without the authority to legislate. . . . In this light, we view the limitation on the length of time a district attorney can hold office to be an improper imposition."
However, Justice Robert S. Smith dissented, saying he "sees nothing in the state constitution or any other state statute that prevents Suffolk County from imposing a limit" on the number of years a district attorney may serve.
"No calamity will occur if some counties have term limits for district attorneys and others do not," Smith stated. "Perhaps statewide uniformity is desirable, but that is for the State Legislature, not this court, to decide.
However, the court majority also found "the state has a fundamental and overriding interest in ensuring the integrity and independence" of the district attorney. Allowing local lawmakers to impose term limits, they said, "would have the potential to impair the independence of that office because it would empower a local legislature to effectively end the tenure of an incumbent district attorney whose investigatory or prosecutorial actions were unpopular or contrary to the interest of county legislators."
Paul Sabatino, the former legislative counsel who drafted the term-limit law, called that rationale an "absurd argument" because the original 1993 law was done on a prospective basis, targeting no one and only taking effect after officials had the chance to serve 12 years in office. "They used a political doctrine instead of a legal principle to uphold their argument," he said.