State's top court eyes Suffolk DA Thomas Spota, term limits

Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota on Jan. Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota on Jan. 29, 2013. Spota said, in a news release Friday, Jan. 30, 2014, that Sgt. Scott A. Greene has been arrested, accused of "targeting" Latinos and stealing cash from them during traffic stops. Photo Credit: Randee Daddona

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ALBANY -- Judges on New York's top court Wednesday peppered lawyers with questions over whether Suffolk County's term limits law bars District Attorney Thomas Spota from running for a fourth term.

The seven-judge panel threw lots of fastballs in a 29-minute session that had attorneys for Spota and GOP challenger Ray Perini backpedaling at times. In the end, the judges seem to home in on one essential legal question: Is the district attorney a "state constitutional officer" rather than a local official, and, if so, isn't the county prohibited from imposing any qualifications on the office?

The judges also pondered whether the state constitution's silence on terms of office for district attorneys means counties are free to set their own limits.

Spota, a Democrat, has been endorsed by the Democratic, Republican, Conservative and Independence parties. GOP challenger Ray Perini, a criminal law attorney, is trying to knock Spota off the ballot. If he fails, the two would face off in the Republican primary on Sept. 10.

Spota wasn't on hand for the arguments, but the challenger was. Perini made no predictions about the court case, but said his lawsuit would help him even if the judges favor Spota.

"I think I'll win the primary," Perini said on the courtroom steps. "People want a choice [for district attorney]. I think there is a concern in the county about not having a choice."

Tom Garry, Spota's attorney, said he was "confident" that the judges recognized legal precedents that a district attorney is a state constitutional officer whose term can't be set by a county legislature.

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Just seconds into the proceeding, the judges launched into an onslaught of questions that had Garry and Perini's lawyer, former state Sen. Martin Connor, on the defensive.

"When the State Legislature wants to restrict something, they do so, and when they don't, can't the county do what it wants?" Judge Robert Smith asked Garry.

Before Garry could fully respond, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman fired another inquiry: "The issue of silence can be argued both ways, can't it? Does this case turn on whether silence favors your argument or not?"

Garry replied that silence favored his argument: district attorneys are responsible for enforcing state laws and, therefore, only the state can restrict their terms.

On the other side, judges tried to pin Connor on New York City's term limits law, which affected an array of offices, but omitted district attorney. Wasn't that an indication that local boards can't restrict DA terms, they asked.

"That was a political choice made by the people who amended the city charter," Connor replied.

What about county court judges? Counties can't restrict their terms, Judge Susan Read noted.

"Judges are state officers and not local officials ever," Connor said, adding that district attorneys functioned as both local and state officials. Connor also said it "doesn't matter" if different counties have term limits for district attorney or not, because that doesn't impact "the powers of the office or the function of the office."

The court is expected to return a decision quickly.

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