11/14/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

"You can't play politics with people's lives."

"You can't play politics with people's lives."

That was the slogan of Manhattan's great district attorney, Frank Hogan, who served for almost three decades. DA Hogan was re-elected time after time with the support of both parties and established the Manhattan DA's Office as the premiere prosecutorial agency in America. This was a mantra that each one of the young lawyers who worked for Hogan internalized, and one that I'm afraid one candidate for DA has forgotten.

The office is remarkable for other reasons. There have been only three elected district attorneys in Manhattan since 1942, all of them with a firmly established presence on the national scene: Thomas Dewey, Frank Hogan, and my professional patron saint, Bob Morgenthau. Under the watch of these three giants, prosecutors were selected on the basis of merit instead of the old clubhouse deals that still mark their counterparts in many jurisdictions. Morgenthau became the gold standard by which all other DA's are measured. He brought down BCCI (the Bank of Credit and Commerce International) when the feds couldn't figure a way to go after the foreign crooks; he pioneered every advance in protecting women and children from predators, including the first Cold Case DNA Unit to identify rapists in unsolved cases; and he led a revolution in legal quarters by appointing women to every top position in the office in the 1970's, when we had so long been denied our places in the courtroom.

There is no election this fall more critical to the well-being of New Yorkers than Tuesday's Democratic primary to select the next District Attorney. Three lawyers, all former prosecutors in that great office, have entered the race. Cy Vance, Jr., has put forward a brilliant array of policy papers, and has been endorsed by the New York Times, Daily News, New York Post, Amsterdam News, and El Diario. He has been endorsed by Bob Morgenthau, Borough President Scott Stringer, Sen. Tom Duane, David Dinkins, Gloria Steinem, Caroline Kennedy, and the giants of the New York bench and bar. Most of us have worked with all three candidates in the race, and we are familiar with their ability, their integrity, and their temperament. Cy is my former colleague and my candidate -- I admire him enormously.

Last week, this race took a particularly ugly turn. Vance's opponent, Leslie Crocker Snyder, launched a series of ballistically negative attacks against him on TV and in mail ads that criticize him for the work he has done as a defense attorney. While Cy is a partner in one of the most distinguished firms in New York City and a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers, Snyder's viciously bitter language is an attempt to denigrate his experience and his ethics. Her vitriolic pandering is done with blatant disregard of the bedrock principles of our criminal justice system: the right of the accused to competent counsel and a vigorous defense.

Snyder, who trumpets her years protecting the citizenry as a tough judge -- so tough she once told a defendant she wished she could give him the lethal injection herself -- may not want voters to remember the time she spent defending criminals. I haven't seen that claim in any of her literature, but I have a vivid recollection of her role.

In January of 1982, a man named James Smith was tried for the murder of a thirty-one year old woman named Velma King. Ms. King was shot in the head, stabbed in the arm, slashed on parts of her stomach and body before being stuffed into a cardboard barrel. Despite the frigid cold winter day, when that barrel was produced in the courtroom as evidence for the jury to see, the stench was so vile that the judge directed that all the windows be opened wide and jurors were supplied with Vicks camphor sticks to rub beneath their noses against the strong smell of death. Leslie Snyder stood beside James Smith and fought for his acquittal. When convicted, she argued vociferously that he shouldn't be sentenced to the maximum term, and then she appealed the verdict. It was easy to hate James Smith for the heinousness of his crime but he was certainly entitled to the defense that his lawyer -- Leslie Snyder -- so vigorously mounted on his behalf.

When did her view of the system change? Surely not in her years on the bench, when she was frequently called upon to appoint defense counsel for indigent criminals who appeared before her. Were they all denied adequate representation?

For more than 35 years, Snyder was a staunch advocate of the death penalty. Sometime right around her 65th birthday, after 40 years of work in the criminal justice system, she had an epiphany in which she realized that from time to time, innocent men had been put to death in this country, and when she ran for office she distanced herself further and further from the lethal injection she once offered to administer herself. Cy Vance has never believed that a civilized system of justice supports the taking of a human life as punishment -- that has always been his ethical stance, not his political posture.

Snyder has called Frank Hogan her mentor. The campaign poster with his famous slogan hung on the wall in her office, as it did in mine. She once understood, as we all did, that politics has no place in the District Attorney's office, that politics can have no place in the decisions made in any case that comes before a prosecutor -- misdemeanor or felony -- that so profoundly affect people's lives. How tragic it is that she has stooped to using the lowest form of political tactics in the last hours of this race; tactics which not only demean her own career, but threaten to disgrace the powerful office she seeks.

For three quarters of a century, the Manhattan District Attorney's office has led this country as a model of professionalism and integrity, using innovative investigative techniques and a cadre of talented young lawyers -- many of whom have gone on to other jobs in the public sector -- and many to serve proudly as members of the defense bar.

Morgenthau's own rule about case decisions -- 'do what you think is right' -- has established a legacy of fairness and fundamental decency that needs to be maintained to keep that office great.

You can't play politics with people's lives. Cy Vance knows that well. Cy Vance should be the next District Attorney of New York County.