The Work

October 6, 2008 5:36 PM

Lawyers Debate Legality of Opening Door to a Third Bloomberg Term

Posted by Rachel Breitman

Even before Mayor Michael Bloomberg formally declared his desire to serve a third term last Thursday, lawmakers and lawyers had begun questioning the legality of the plan.

Conceding that there wasn't enough to time to give the public a chance to vote on whether to amend the city's term-limit law, the mayor said the City Council should be allowed to make the decision.

"The [City] Charter allows the Council to change the law - and it doesn't favor one method of adoption over another,” Bloomberg said in a statement.  The mayor added that he expected Council Speaker Christine Quinn--also set to be term-limited out of office next year--to lead the charge on the matter.

But council members, good-government advocates and politicians eyeing higher office expressed skepticism about the validity of using a council vote to undo the 1993 term limit law, which was passed via public referendum and caps at two the number of four-year terms that elected officials may serve. Critics -- some of whom gathered at City Hall on Sunday to protest any move to extend term limts -- note that voters already rejected a move to overturn the limits by defeating a 1996 referendum on the issue.

Opposition to Bloomberg's third-term push could build inside City Hall this week, fueled in part by the efforts of council members with designs on higher office. Queens Councilmember -- and announced comptroller candidate -- David Weprin plans to introduce a bill shortly that would require a public vote in advance of any term-limit changes. Brooklyn Councilmember Bill de Blasio, a borough president hopeful, has teamed up with Councilwoman Letitia James, whose term runs through 2011, on a bill that would place the question before voters in a special spring referendum.

A term limit bill could also face legal challenges from other mayoral hopefuls, including City Comptroller William Thompson Jr., a Democrat who has labeled Bloomberg's move “an attempt to suspend democracy,” or supermarket magnate John Catsimatidis, a potential GOP candidate.

“The people voted on term limits twice, and the will of the people should stand,” Catsimatidis spokesman Robert Ryan tells The AmLaw Daily.

Norman Siegel, director of the New York Civil Liberties Union from 1985 to 2000, tells The AmLaw Daily that he would be keen to help out with a legal challenge to the mayor. “The people have spoken two times by public referendum,” says Siegel, who is planning a third run for public advocate next year. Siegel has previously challenged the Bloomberg administration over such issues as citywide parade rules and mourners' access to Ground Zero. “The question is whether you can allow a legislative body to undo the people’s will by legislative fiat.”

Siegel downplayed the 1961 court decision in Benzow v. Cooley--often cited by Bloomberg supporters as a powerful precedent---when the New York State Court of Appeals upheld Buffalo city council’s right to overturn term limits. “The Buffalo decision is limited and not controlling in this case,” says Siegel.

The mayor's backers point to a 2003 New York City appeals court decision, which supported the council's power to tweak the 1993 term limits bill for candidates elected during mid-term special elections.  

“It is absolutely clear that the city council can change the term limits, and it does not require a referendum,“ Robert Joffe, a partner in Cravath Swaine and Moore's litigation department, who represented the city council in the 2003 case, tells The AmLaw Daily. But he says there will still be debate over what a new term limit law might look like. “The question is, would they abolish term limits outright? Change the limits to three terms for all elections, or just this one because of fiscal emergency?”

Another potential wild card could be cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder, a longtime term-limits proponent and the driving force behind passage of the original law. Lauder says he will only support a one-time extension to the term limits bill, and will actively campaign against any council bill that would permanently change term limit restrictions.

The mayor has, however, won the support of several prominent lawyers, including Candace Beineke, chair of Hughes Hubbard & Reed  and Martin Lipton, a founding partner of of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. The two joined 28 corporate executives in an open letter that was published in several New York City newspapers  on Thursday supporting a third Bloomberg term.

“I am not an expert on  term limits,” Beineke tells The AmLaw Daily. Nonetheless, she believes New Yorkers should see Bloomberg on the ballot next year. “I think the voters ought to have a chance to give Bloomberg a third term because it is the most democratic option.”

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I wanted to update your readers. After the City Council's introduction of two pieces of legislation relating to this matter yesterday, New York City Comptroller William C. Thompson, Jr. issued the following statement: "Today, the New York City Council introduced two measures, one that would allow the Council and the Mayor to single-handedly grant themselves the ability to run for a third term. The other measure would allow New York City voters to make the decision. The choice is clear: People must come before politics. It is inappropriate for the Mayor and City Council to pass legislation that ignores the will of the voters. A government should serve its people and not itself. New Yorkers deserve nothing less."

Why was the Mayor afraid to put in a referundum before the Sept. 24th deadline....No answer from him. WHY

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