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Can Clarkstown’s Term Limit Law Stand Up To A Court Challenge?

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Intent Of Term Limits For Clarkstown Town Board Is Clear Even If Wording Is Considered Vague

By Michael Starvaggi

As discussed in a companion RCBJ article, there may be a budding legal battle over the validity of the Clarkstown term limit law (Code §263-1), which states that “the term of any elected Clarkstown official elected in a regular election after January 1, 2015, shall not exceed eight consecutive years.”

If the law were to be challenged, it would likely be on the basis that the use of the word “term” makes the meaning of the law vague.  The argument, it would seem, is that the word “term” may refer either to the entirety of the length of time in office of the official or of just one period for which the candidate is elected to serve, which is commonly referred to as a “term.”  A court would then have to rule on the issue of whether the law is enforceable as written.  The standard that would be applied in such a legal challenge has been articulated in several other cases that have interpreted local term limit statutes.

mike starvaggi
Mike Starvaggi, Esq.

One such case,  involved a Suffolk County Charter provision stating that “[n]o person shall serve as a County Legislator for more than 12 consecutive years.” The Court ruled that the language of the law did not prevent a candidate from serving a total of more than twelve years where there had been a break in service.  Quoting a case from New York’s highest court, the opinion stated “[T]he plain language of the statute … is the clearest indication of legislative intent” and went on to interpret the plain language of the law as prohibiting a candidate from serving more than twelve consecutive years, but not creating any lifetime maximum years of service.

In another case, the Court ruled that a local law stating that “no elective officer shall have more than two consecutive terms of four years in the same public office” did not prevent a candidate from serving a third consecutive term in a different office than the previous two.  The Court stated that “[a] statute must be construed according to the ordinary meaning of its words and resort to extrinsic matter . . . is inappropriate when the statutory language is unambiguous and the meaning unequivocal” [emphasis added].

Therefore, if the Clarkstown law is challenged, a court will first look at the ordinary meaning of the phrase “the term of any elected Clarkstown official . . . shall not exceed eight consecutive years.”  It is very likely that the court will determine that the phrase means what a commonsense reading would suggest.  Namely, that the aggregate number of consecutive years that may be served is eight, irrespective of the use of the word “term.”

If, however, the Court were to find that there was an ambiguity in the language, it would then turn to the legislative intent of the law to ascertain its meaning.  According to the Resolution passed at the Town Hall meeting at which the law was discussed, Section 263 is “intended to . . . limit the terms of any Clarkstown elected official elected in a regular election after January 1, 2015 to no more than eight consecutive years.”  That intention, as well as other background statements regarding the law, should make it clear that the intention of the wording is that the maximum aggregate of all terms of office is intended to be eight consecutive years.

This legal matter, if pursued, will come down to ordinary commonsense.  Term limits are common and exist at all levels of government.  An ordinary person reading the law as it is written would certainly understand it to mean that the eight consecutive years is the maximum total amount of time that an elected official may serve.  It seems unlikely that a court will allow a tortured parsing of the word “term” to frustrate that intent.  The Town intended to create an eight-year maximum and a court is very likely to interpret the law to do so.

Michael Starvaggi is a Nyack-based attorney.

This article is intended for general informational purposes only and shall not be deemed to give individual legal advice.