Lawsuit challenges Bloomberg on term limits

November 10, 2008 4:28:23 PM PST
The broadest legal attack yet on Mayor Michael Bloomberg's bid for a third term came Monday when a coalition of elected officials and others sued the city, saying another term would be unconstitutional without letting the public vote on the issue for a third time. Twice before, in 1993 and 1996, New Yorkers decided they wanted term limits to keep mayors from serving more than two consecutive four-year terms. The last mayor to do so was Ed Koch, who stepped down in 1989.

Bloomberg, a billionaire businessman, has said he wants to seek a third term in next year's election so he can use his financial background to help the city navigate the fallout from the economic crisis.

"In the United States, the right to vote is a fundamental right and votes have consequences," the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn said. "This bedrock democratic principle does not crumble in the face of a weakened economy, nor should it be violated for the direct benefit of specific individual elected officials."

Last month, the City Council voted 29-22 to let officeholders seek to serve three consecutive four-year terms. A lawsuit in state court failed to stop the vote.

The term-limit change gave dozens of other elected officials the chance to seek re-election and made it likely that some who might otherwise seek the mayoral post would not run because they would face an incumbent with unlimited campaign funds.

Bloomberg has enjoyed strong approval ratings in recent years, but polls taken after he announced his intention to seek a third term show the public is overwhelmingly opposed to the measure.

Michael A. Cardozo, the city's top lawyer, said: "We believe the claims lack merit and are confident the court will determine that the amendment to the term limits law was proper and lawful."

The lawsuit seeks a declaration that the term limits extension is unconstitutional and invalid because it violates the First Amendment protection to an effective vote and its protection against legislative actions that chill protected speech. It also said the measure violates the Fourteenth Amendment's protection of due process.

The lawsuit seeks to bar the Board of Elections from listing term-limited city officials on the ballot in next year's elections.

The lawsuit noted that term limits were put in place to prevent entrenchment of incumbents in office in a city where only two out of 107 incumbent City Council candidates lost a re-election bid in the past decade.

Randy Mastro, a lawyer and former top aide of former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, said he filed the lawsuit because the council and mayor had "denied New Yorkers their fundamental right to have their vote be meaningful." After Sept. 11, 2001, Giuliani unsuccessfully sought to extend his second term to deal with the aftermath of the attacks.

Mastro cited the wide spectrum of plaintiffs involved in the lawsuit, including members of every political party, borough and demographic group as well as council members, candidates for office and voters. Over the years Bloomberg has switched his political affiliation twice, from Democrat to Republican and then to independent.

Guy Molinari, Staten Island's former borough president and one of the earliest supporters of Bloomberg's first mayoral run, was among the plaintiffs.

Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum said in a statement that the vote to extend term limits, which Bloomberg signed into law last week, was ironic.

"Last week we saw democracy at work in our country with the historic election of Barack Obama. However, just one day earlier, New York City saw democracy diminished with the stroke of a pen," Gotbaum said.