Mailer puffery and accusatory television ads swarming around Long Island's twin district attorney campaigns prompt the basic question of whether there is a better way to select the chief law enforcement officers for Nassau and Suffolk counties. Winning one of the most powerful roles in local government, the ability to prosecute crimes and administer justice, shouldn't be reduced to another win-at-all-cost competition that distorts the reality of the day-to-day operations of the office.
It was different at the start. The New York State Constitution of 1821 gave the judges of the county court the power to appoint a prosecutor for a three-year term. But that changed in 1846 when a new constitution established, for counties outside of New York City, a four-year term determined by popular vote.
Nassau, originally part of the city, switched to the elected role in 1899 and has had only 14 different individuals serve as district attorney in 123 years. In Suffolk, 31 men have been elected as DA with 27 serving in the time frame comparable with Nassau, according to the Historical Society of the New York Courts.
The less-frequent turnover in Nassau was a sign of the dominance and discipline of the local Republican Party, which stayed with its man and the patronage of all those assistant prosecutor jobs until 2005 when Democrat Kathleen Rice upset Denis Dillon after eight terms. Nine years later Rice was elected to Congress, and fellow Democrat Madeline Singas succeeded her until she left in June to take a seat on the state's top court.
In Suffolk, for the last five decades, the district attorney's office has been surrounded by political intrigue and infighting between Democrats and Republicans that got so ugly in 1977 that Gov. Hugh Carey empaneled two grand juries to investigate the charges hurled around. Republicans controlled the office until Democrat Thomas Spota won in 2001. And he subsequently ran on ballot lines of all the major parties, a circumstance that bestowed a corrupting power.
New Jersey's county prosecutors are selected by the governor and confirmed by the State Senate; it's one of three states that have kept the district attorney as an appointive office. Returning to that system might be an option New Yorkers should consider lest these campaigns further undermine confidence in a system that must ensure justice is fair to all, regardless of race, wealth, connections, or party affiliation.
On Long Island this year, the district attorney contests are distorted but for different reasons. In Nassau, the fight is set in the national culture wars over policing and racial justice. In Suffolk, where the political fights are inbred, it's a primal brawl to keep the power of the office from the other side.
It's against this disturbing background that the editorial board makes its recommendations.
ENDORSEMENTS ARE DETERMINED solely by the Newsday editorial board, a team of opinion journalists focused on issues of public policy and governance. Newsday’s news division has no role in this process.