Elected officials, aspiring politicians, public interest groups and average citizens who voted to establish term limits in New York in the 1990s filed a federal lawsuit [pdf] Monday morning challenging the constitutionality of a law signed by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg last week that extended the limits from a maximum of two terms in office to three.
The lawsuit charges that the mayor and the City Council seized upon the economic downturn as an excuse to undo the term limits law that had been twice affirmed by voters through referendum, and did so at an unprecedented pace.
The legislation that Mr. Bloomberg signed, and which the Council approved by a 29 to 22 margin last month, was the subject of two days of public hearings at City Hall that dragged deep into the night and forced witnesses to wait for hours before they were allowed to testify.
“Allowing a self-interested mayor and City Council to dismiss the results of two recent referenda undermines the integrity of the voting process, effectively nullifies the constitutionally-protected right to vote, and perniciously chills political speech by sending the unavoidable message that the democratic exercises of initiatives and referenda can be disregarded by public officials,” the complaint states.
If the two-term limit had stayed in place, the mayor, comptroller, public advocate, four of the five borough presidents and 35 council members would have had to vacate their seats by Dec. 31, 2009.
But by extending the limits, the mayor and the Council altered next year’s municipal elections, forcing those who had planned to run for what would have been open seats to reassess their decisions and, in some cases, change their strategies.
Among the lawsuit’s 25 plaintiffs are several politicians who have had to rethink their races. Councilman Bill de Blasio had been campaigning to replace the Brooklyn borough president, Marty Markowitz, who could not run under the old rules but now will run for a third term. So Mr. de Blasio is now running for public advocate, a seat that will be open because the incumbent, Betsy Gotbaum, has decided not run for a third term.
Kenneth J. Baer has spent most of the $12,000 he has raised in his campaign to replace Councilman David Yassky of Brooklyn, who is now unsure if he will run for a third term or run for comptroller. The comptroller, William C. Thompson Jr., has said that he will carry on with his mayoral aspirations, but there are some who doubt he will ultimately challenge Mr. Bloomberg, who has said that he is ready to spend $80 million of his own fortune on his re-election campaign.
There are others: Peter Gleason, who planned to run for the seat that would have had to be vacated by Councilman Alan J. Gerson of Manhattan if the limits had not been extended; Mark Winston Griffith, who planned to run for the seat held by the two-term councilman Albert Vann of Brooklyn; and Alfonso Quiroz, who has raised $50,000 for his campaign to replace Councilwoman Helen Sears of Queens, though Ms. Sears is now likely to vie for a third term.
The lawsuit points out that in the past decade, only 2 of 107 incumbent council members lost a re-election bid. It also highlights Mayor Bloomberg’s many statements in favor of term limits over the past few years, as when he deemed some council members’ calls for a change to term limits “disgraceful” and criticized a proposal to resubmit the issue to a third referendum by saying, “I think the public has spoken twice and they’ve spoken quite clearly. I don’t know that you should keep shopping for a different answer.”
Aside from Mr. Bloomberg, the City Council and the city itself, other defendants named in the suit are the City Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, and James J. Sampel, the president of the Board of Elections.The lawsuit was filed by Randy M. Mastro, a deputy mayor in the Giuliani administration and a partner at the law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, and Norman Siegel, the civil rights lawyer who is running for public advocate.