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Law
Internet resources for what you need to know on NYC Law
Five Favorite Sites For Beginners

The Topic
"NYC Law" refers to the legal and juridical dimensions of City public policy. What do the laws say? How have they been interpreted? What is the relationship between laws as written and rules as enforced?
The Context
The sheer size of NYC government requires its extensive legal involvement in countless issues. Over 700 attorneys are employed in the Office of the Corporation Counsel alone. Every major and minor public policy issue has a legal dimension. On some issues – Charter revision or campaign finance limits, for example – the legal dimension is paramount.
The Reporter
Margaret Reuter, better known as Meg, is the managing editor of City Law, the bi-monthly journal on City legal developments published by the Center for New York City Law. She also serves as an adjunct professor at New York Law School. She is reachable at [email protected].

by Margaret Reuter, Center for New York City Law at New York Law School

In the News: Ferrets - pet or public health menace?

(apr '00) What's a ferret owner to do? What's the City to do? Ferrets, members of the weasel family, make novel pets, are ideally sized for apartment living, and have won the admiration and affections of their owners. Public health officials, at least in New York City, see them as unpredictable, and having a track record of unprovoked attacks on small children and infants. The struggle between the ferret owners and the City's Department of Health has played out in public health studies, federal court, state housing court, the regulatory arena, back to court and and even in the legislature.

The City's Health Code prohibits keeping animals that are "wild, ferocious, fierce, dangerous, or natually inclined to do harm." DOH has long considered ferrets wild and banned them as pets. DOH relied on a ten-year California Department of Health Services study documenting ferret attacks and the caution issued by the National Association of State and Public Health Veterinerians. Ferret owners, who felt their pets were unjustly accused, banded together as the Friends of Ferrets and sued the City in federal court. They complained that pit bulls were not categorically prohibited and pointed out that a number of other states allow ferrets, including the rest of New York State. US District Judge Allen Schwartz upheld the City's classification of ferrets -- the studies provided DOH with a rational and constitutionally valid basis for its action. That was 1995.

In 1998, Gary Kaskel's landlord, Abe Rill, read a newspaper article featuring Kaskel and his pet ferrets. Kaskel is one of the founding members of Friends of Ferrets. His lease prohibited pets without permission and forbade any animals that were prohibited by the Health Code. Given the federal court opinion on the matter, one might think this should be an open-and-shut case. As it turns out, Civil Court Judge Lucy Billings examined the Health Code, DOH's application of the Code to ferrets, and the federal case, but concluded otherwise. Judge Billings ruled that DOH's policy that all ferrets were wild without regard to any mitigating circumstances was the equivalent of a "rule." Since the City Charter requires specific procedures for adopting a rule, which had not been followed here, the ferrets were not prohibited under the Health Code as a matter of law. Mr. Kaskel could have a trial to prove his ferrets were not wild or dangerous.

Meanwhile, Kaskel tried another route to legitimize ferrets. He petitioned the Board of Health to review the status of ferrets. They agreed, but delivered the answer he did not want to hear. Less than one month after Judge Billings decision, DOH proposed a new rule, specifically listing nearly 200 species of animals as wild, fierce, ferocious, dangerous, or prone to harm. Ferrets were included, along with iguanas, mongooses, devenomized snakes, and hawks. When the agency finalized the rule in July 1999, it reported that the ferrets fanciers put up a valiant campaign to legalize the ferrets. Nonetheless, DOH stuck to its earlier assessments that ferrets were not reliably tame.

Since then, Council Member Kathryn E. Freed requested that the Speaker's Office consider legislation specifically legalizing ferrets and iguanas as lawful pets in New York City. No bill has yet been drafted. Kaskel's landlord discontinued its eviction action, realizing that DOH's new rule would take care of Judge Billings' only issue in the case. The landlord has yet to reinitiate the eviction action. The ferret owners, even sued the City again, which the City has moved to dismiss. No decision has yet been made.

Meg Sounds Off: Census 2000 and the City

Everyone has heard about the significant undercount of 8.4 million people in the last census. Everyone has also heard that sophisticated sampling techniques could calculate a more accurate count than the enumeration (head count) the Census Bureau has historically conducted, but the Supreme Court forbade the technique. What everyone may not realize is that the Court forbade the statistical techniques in one instance only -- apportioning the 435 seats of the House of Representatives. That is the one and only constitutional reason to conduct the census. The census however, is used for everything that is distributed on a per capita basis -- like most federal aid, and even for drawing congressional districts. For all those uses of the population count, the Supreme Court indicated that the sampling methods were permissible. While the City should do everything it can to get a full count through the historical enumeration method (Congressional seats are vital), it must aggressively vie for the population count to be adjusted with the fairest techniques available so that it receives the maximum federal aid allowed.


Meg's Top Sites For Beginners:

  • Center for New York City Law - The site excerpts select reports from each issue of City Law, a monthly journal published by the Center. Critiques of nearly 40 City government-oriented websites (with links). Recommended: analysis of 1989 charter mandate that the City annually assess the condition of its bridges, libraries, public schools, police stations and the like.
  • City Council - Besides profiling its members, the site allows the user to search local laws and explains how a bill becomes law. Searches for local laws and bills have some limitations. For instance a search for "lead-based paint" produced the recent local law, backed by the administration, but not the competing bill offered by council member Michels.
  • New York City's Law Department - Part of the City's comprehensive NYCLink the site provides descriptions of the work of each division. Highlights include the City's 1997 complaint challenging the constitutionality of the federal line item veto, in PDF format, and former Corporation Counsel Paul Crotty's case for tort reform.
  • New York Law Journal - Best feature: access to full text versions of most cases reported in its pages, most of which are never reported anywhere else (such as on westlaw or lexis). Retrieve and print out the cases reported in the Law Journal by picking "courts on nylj.com" and searching by court. This is a real service, given that compiling your own archive of these decisions had been an arduous task of cutting, pasting, and photocopying. Good links to all kinds of law, business, university, and government related sites.


Other Recommendations:

  • Association of the Bar of the City of New York- Site of the City Bar, organization highlighting its recently issued reports. Now playing: the full text of a report on the City's enormous tort case backlog (more than 62,000 cases) by the Council on Judicial Administration. They critique City efforts in addressing the problem against formidable odds. The site also includes an impressive list of pro bono opportunities for lawyers and law students.
  • The Constitution Society - The Liberty Library has more than 100 classic essays on constitutional government in html, text and pdf format. Features such profound works as Machiavelli's The Prince, Thomas Paine's Common Sense, and the Constitutional Ratification Debates.
  • NYC Documents at Columbia Univ. - This site links to scores of City related sites and guides users through Columbia's substantial collection of NYC-related materials by category.
  • Independent Budget Office - One of the illuminating features of the site: It will calculate exactly how your tax payments are divided up and spent at each level of government (city, state, and federal) both by broad category and by selected programs. Just input your taxes paid and adjusted income from your tax returns (or you can just estimate them, of course), and it will calculate the results.
  • Public Advocate - The chock-full site of Public Advocate Mark Green -- a good place to look to measure the worth of the office that Mayor Giuliani has targeted for abolition.
  • Citizens Budget Commission - Features recent research papers of the CBC. The latest: comparing the competitiveness of the NYC metro region's transportation infrastructure -- the City's highway and mass transit systems -- to LA, Chicago, Tokyo, London, and Paris.
  • Article 78 - This site provides a useful primer for lawyers and nonlawyers who seek to challenge a City or State action claiming it was irrational, arbitrary or illegal. The site explains how an Article 78 action can be started, though it provides little help with what standards the courts apply to overturn an agency decision. Sponsored by a private law firm, the site has some promotional material, but its primer is "promotion free."


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Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation and is made possible by support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Altman Foundation,the Fund for the City of New York and donors to Citizens Union Foundation. Please consider supporting Citizens Union Foundation's public education programs. Critical early support to Gotham Gazette was provided by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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