Public Advocate Letitia James (photo via @TishJames)
The Public Advocate’s office was created in 1993 to give a voice to everyday New Yorkers and act as checks on the authority of the Mayor and the function of city agencies. Letitia James, the fourth New York City Public Advocate, has made litigation a major tool in her attempt to fulfill the office’s mandates. James, who has a background as an attorney and has hired several lawyers to her staff since taking office in 2014, has fought the city and its agencies in the courts with mixed success. James’ aggressive use of litigation has raised the question of what legal standing the Public Advocate has on behalf of all New Yorkers.
After multiple occasions where she was either bumped from lawsuits for lack of standing or she withdrew, within the last few weeks James declared victory in two cases where judges recognized her capacity to sue the city. The decisions have served to embolden James in her commitment to legal action and also possibly set a precedent for the powers of her office.
The debate and the proceedings over the legal powers of the Public Advocate are far from over, though, as the de Blasio administration plans its appeals and is likely to move to dismiss legal action from James in the future. Mayor Bill de Blasio, a political ally of James and James’ predecessor as Public Advocate, is also not ready to accept the Public Advocate’s blanket ability to sue the city.
“I think it’s case by case, that’s my understanding,” de Blasio said Sept. 6 when asked by Gotham Gazette at a news conference about the most recent decision. “That was not a blanket assessment, that was about that case,” he added.
James doesn’t agree with de Blasio though. "By its very nature, a judge's ruling sets precedent for the future and this most recent decision affirms the Public Advocate's capacity to sue to protect the rights of New Yorkers,” the public advocate said in a statement to Gotham Gazette.
Future cases will either cement the litigious powers of the office or not. Meanwhile, former office holders and legal experts are mixed on the extent to which the Public Advocate can litigate against the City.
The two court rulings that have bolstered James, though, were delivered in August in separate lawsuits initiated by James against the New York City Department of Education and the City of New York. They affirmed and reinforced the legal capacity of the Public Advocate to sue the city.
The most recent decision came on August 30 when a New York County Supreme Court judge issued a ruling on the viability of a lawsuit brought by James against the Department of Education over the lack of air-conditioning on school buses for students with disabilities. The court found that the Public Advocate’s mandate “would include an obligation to explore a serious health problem affecting disabled children of the City and attempt, with the help of the Court, to remedy that problem.” It held that the case could move forward since James had the legal capacity to sue, which the de Blasio administration had argued against in seeking to dismiss the case.
A Law Department spokesperson confirmed that the City will appeal the court’s decision that favored the Public Advocate’s right to sue on behalf of New Yorkers and in conducting the office’s duties. “The DOE is committed to ensuring air-conditioned buses to all students who require them and that any concerns are immediately addressed," the spokesperson said in a statement.
Earlier, on August 11, James hailed another court decision that found her office could compel the DOE to respond to her concerns over its failure to effectively track the needs of students with disabilities in the city’s school system.
These are only the latest in a number of judicial decisions over the years that have in turns enhanced the powers of the Public Advocate and also defined the limits of the office’s jurisdiction in certain cases. James’ litigation, largely aimed at the de Blasio administration, puts the mayor and former public advocate in the unique position of regularly opposing his successor’s claims and even right to sue. The current dynamic is also the first time in the history of the Public Advocate office that the Mayor and Public Advocate are of the same party -- de Blasio and James are both Democrats.
Public Advocates have often used litigation as a tool to take the city and its many agencies to task, and in doing so have managed to expand the jurisdiction of the office, which remains unchanged in the City Charter. The charter does not expressly give the public advocate the right to bring a lawsuit, but it does not forbid it either.
Mark Green, the city’s first Public Advocate, depended on his experience as a lawyer to bring suits against the City. During his tenure, he won two major victories that established precedent for the Public Advocate’s capacity to bring legal action. James has cited these rulings in court to push back against the City’s attempts to dismiss her cases.
The first was Green v. Safir in 1997, in which Green sued then-NYPD Commissioner Howard Safir for access to the police department’s disciplinary case files for officers with substantiated complaints against them. An appellate court that ruled in Green’s favor held that he had standing to do so to further an investigation.
In the second case, Green v. Giuliani in 2000, the public advocate sought a judicial inquiry into then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani for disclosing information from the sealed juvenile record of an unarmed African-American man who was shot dead by an NYPD officer. The New York County Supreme court stated in that case that the Public Advocate is an independently elected official with the capacity to sue.
“Those two cases, especially, confirmed that the Public Advocate could bring lawsuits in order to exercise its power as the city’s ombudsman,” said Green, in a phone interview with Gotham Gazette. “That doesn’t mean the Public Advocate can sue anybody for anything, but can, as we did in the Green v. Safir case, compel the city government to disclose information that should be in the public arena.”
In a later case involving Long Island College Hospital, which was initiated by de Blasio when he was Public Advocate, the Kings County Supreme Court ruled that the Public Advocate had the right to intervene and help choose the next operator of the facility since it was in the community’s interest. The case was inherited by James.
Over the course of several public advocates, the office has, however, hit walls in certain instances, showing the limits of its power. When former Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum sought to intervene in a legal dispute involving the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), a court ruled that she did not have the capacity to challenge decisions made by a state entity. And when Public Advocate James tried to compel the release of grand jury transcripts in the Eric Garner case by suing then-Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan, she was denied on the grounds that her charter duties do not extend to criminal investigations. There have been other lawsuits that James has been involved in that were also unsuccessful, wherein she either withdrew or was dismissed.
The Public Advocate office over the years has been defined by its holder and each has opted to use litigation as a tool, to varying degrees. The office has a relatively small budget, which was actually cut under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and partially restored since de Blasio has been Mayor. Some have called for the office to receive so-called independent budgeting wherein it receives a set percentage of the overall city budget and is therefore not susceptible to an unfriendly mayor or City Council.
“The office of the public advocate almost always reflects the personality and priorities of the incumbent,” said Green. “So I did turn it into a sort of Nader’s Raiders public interest organization reflecting my history,” he said, referring to his role in a volunteer activist group of law students created by former independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader. But Green insisted that litigation was not necessarily the “major tool” of the office. “The ability to bring lawsuits is important but not the core function of the Public Advocate’s office, which is monitoring city agencies, answering complaints on city government and proposing new laws and ideas to make city government more accountable.”
James has been more active in her use of litigation. Now in the third year of her first term, she has been a plaintiff in 11 lawsuits so far and filed numerous amicus briefs in other cases. In contrast, de Blasio initiated only three suits while he held the post for one term, according to a spokesperson for the public advocate.
James has brought to bear her experience as an assistant attorney general and public interest litigator, initiating action on the behalf of members of the public to challenge the performance of city agencies. She said she has redesigned the office of the Public Advocate, raising awareness of its role and capacity in advocating for New Yorkers through a three-pronged approach.
“When I was elected, my vision was advocacy work, litigation and investigatory work,” James told Gotham Gazette. Feeling good about the advocacy and litigation efforts thus far, she said, “In my next term, I want to advance the investigative power of the office including forensic audits to determine the effective of city agencies and programs.” James is up for reelection in 2017.
She points to the victories won by Green and de Blasio as affirmation of her office’s broader ambit, and is bolstered by the recent decisions in her favor as evidence of the effectiveness of litigation. Following the August 11 decision, she told Gotham Gazette, her office is better placed to bring legal action that could also be recognized by higher courts. “I would imagine that a lot of judges will look to that as paramount to our ability to bring lawsuits,” she said.
The de Blasio administration has attempted to stymie many of James’ lawsuits by arguing that cases be dismissed because they are out of the Public Advocate’s purview. It was the same tactic that de Blasio was on the other side of in the Long Island College Hospital case.
Judicial decisions show that the office’s charter-mandated authority is open to interpretation even if its architects did not intend for it to be so. The City Charter establishes the role of the public advocate in monitoring city agencies and their response to complaints from the public; proposing means of improving response to complaints; and fielding, investigating, and redressing individual complaints as well.
One expert on the City Charter said the language in the section that states the Public Advocate’s duties could construe broader authority for the office and that legal standing for lawsuits would exist in cases involving those core powers. “Tish James has been very structured in her approach,” said the expert, who requested anonymity to remain out of public legal and political disputes. “Her view and interpretation of her office’s role includes legal advocacy and impact litigation.” (This legal expert also noted a peculiar conflict in the way the Public Advocate’s office relates to the city’s Corporation Counsel, the head of the Law Department, pointing out that the Corporation Counsel is the attorney on record for both the City of New York and the Public Advocate, and is often on the opposing side of litigation brought by the Public Advocate.)
But Eric Lane, dean of Hofstra Law School, doesn’t believe the Public Advocate’s duties can be interpreted broadly. Lane was executive director and counsel to the New York City Charter Revision Commission between 1986 and 1989 and oversaw the very provisions that established the powers of the public advocate.
Lane said the Public Advocate’s job should be to oversee and report on the system, to be the “public critic” who should only use legal action to further the completion of his or her duties. “I agree that [James] has the right to sue to gain access to information to allow her to fulfill her oversight obligations under the Charter, but I don't believe that Charter provides the Public Advocate with the authority to sue ‘to protect the rights of all New Yorkers,’” Lane told Gotham Gazette, referring to a statement put out by the public advocate’s office after the August 30 ruling. “I think this is inconsistent with the Charter scope of her job and problematic,” he said.