May 25, 2021

Determining legislative intent in interpreting a statute

In a consolidated proceeding pursuant to Election Law Article 16, petitioners [Plaintiffs] sought judicial review a determination of the Suffolk County Board of Elections denying Plaintiffs' objections to a petition designating Kate M. Browning as a candidate in a primary election and sought a court order to compel the Suffolk County Board of Elections to remove Ms. Browning's name from the ballot in that primary election and other relief.

Supreme Court granted Plaintiffs' petition and issued a "final order" compelling the Suffolk County Board of Elections to remove Ms. Browning's name from the ballot. Supreme Court had concluded that Ms. Browning was ineligible to serve as a Suffolk County Legislator as a term limits provision in the Suffolk County Charter*  provided that "[n]o person shall serve as a County Legislator for more than 12 consecutive years".

Ms. Browning appealed and the Appellate Division reversed the lower court's ruling "on the law."

The Appellate Division, noting that "[T]he plain language of the statute ... is the clearest indication of legislative intent," opined that Article II, §C2-5[B] does not expressly impose any total or lifetime term limit. Rather, said the court, "the plain language of the provision only prohibits a County Legislator from serving more than 12 consecutive years." Citing Andryeyeva v New York Health Care, Inc., 33 NY3d 152, the Appellate Division said that in construing a statute, "words must be 'harmonize[d]' and read together to avoid surplusage."**

Accordingly, the court declared that the provision set out in the County Charter relied upon by Petitioners seeking the removal of Ms. Browning's name from the ballot in the primary election "should not be interpreted as prohibiting an individual who has previously served as a County Legislator for 12 consecutive years from thereafter seeking a new term in that office, so long as the new term sought is not consecutive to the preceding term."

Thus, said the Appellate Division, Supreme Court should have denied the Plaintiffs' petitions and dismissed the proceeding.

* See Article II, §C2-5[B].

** Courts should not interpret any statutory provision in a way that would render it or another part of the statute inoperative or redundant. 

Click HERE to access the Appellate Division's decision.

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