Suffolk Closeup: Stop the lawyering and leave Spota be

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON PHOTO | Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota at a press conference in May.

The judge’s determination couldn’t have been stronger.

“Without reservation and without doubt,” declared Supreme Court Justice Ralph Gazzillo, “it is beyond the power of a county to restrict the number of times that such county’s district attorney, sheriff and/or clerk may run for office.”

Nevertheless, there‘s a move by some on the Suffolk County Legislature to appeal Justice Gazzillo’s decision that the 12-year term-limit rule set by the legislature in 1993 for the county’s DA, sheriff and clerk is invalid.

Speaking against an appeal has been Edward Romaine, a county legislator until Monday when he was sworn in as Brookhaven Town supervisor. “The county is in a fiscal crisis and this is a time for us to be careful with taxpayer money,” said Mr. Romaine, whose district has included Shelter Island.

However, a vote on an appeal has been postponed, and Mr. Romaine won’t be a member of the legislature when it’s taken, which begs the question: Will the remaining members of the legislature be sensible like Mr. Romaine?

Public money involved in an appeal is, of course, a major issue in a county that’s cutting back dramatically on services. Why waste tax dollars on an appeal of a judicial verdict that was so emphatic and clear? But even more important: Why act on something which could end the tenure of the best district attorney Suffolk County has had in modern times?

Tom Spota, originally a Republican who ran for DA as a Democrat in 2001, taking on then incumbent James M. Catterson Jr. — a Republican who had politicized the office — has demonstrated he’s beyond politics. Indeed, that’s why he ran by acclamation in his two campaigns for re-election, appearing on all party lines.

Spota’s demonstrated, too, that prosecutorial over-reaching isn’t part of his make-up. The website of the DA’s office is now headed with the banner: “The duty of a prosecutor is to seek justice, not merely to convict.”

In his years as Suffolk DA, Mr. Spota has been measured, fair, careful and extremely active. Whether taking on governmental corruption in Suffolk (a long and dubious tradition here), drug trafficking, organized crime, gang violence, and everything else a good DA is supposed to attack, he’s been at it vigorously, unlike many Suffolk DAs who preceded him.

The term-limits rule was enacted by the Suffolk Legislature at a time when, as the rule’s “legislative intent” section said, citizen dissatisfaction with long-serving elected officials had “reached a fever pitch” and there was a view that public officials could “entrench themselves.” That wasn’t incorrect then or now. But term-limits weren’t applied where they have been especially needed — to members of Congress or the New York State Legislature, as examples, who through gerrymandering have carved out safe districts enabling them to get re-elected endlessly.

Suffolk has been the only one of the 62 counties in the state to impose term limits on its DA, sheriff and clerk. As the legal challenge to the rule brought by DA Spota, incumbent Sheriff Vincent DeMarco and incumbent County Clerk Judith Pascale stressed, all are “quasi-state” positions and Suffolk County was “without authority” in imposing term limits on them. They are “defined by state law for law enforcement and administrative activities.” Thus “only the governor of the State of New York may remove or fill a vacancy in the offices of district attorney, sheriff or county clerk.”

Justice Gazzillo in September fully agreed. “The authority to promulgate additional qualifications” like term limits “is solely vested with and retained by the state,” he stated.

Incidentally, Justice Gazzillo wasn’t ruling from a judicial ivory tower. He has plenty of life experience in government and law. He’s a retired New York City police sergeant, was an assistant Suffolk DA and law secretary to judges including Suffolk’s Gail Prudenti, now chief administrative judge of all New York State courts. He was elected a Suffolk District Court judge, then elected to County Court where he served as supervising judge of all criminal courts in Suffolk.

Commenting in the New York Law Journal on the decision, Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance, Jr., president of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York — which filed a “friend of the court” brief in the case — said it “upholds the independence and integrity of each of New York’s 62 district attorneys.”

This is no decision to waste county tax dollars appealing.