"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 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.
Margaret Reuter 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
by Margaret Reuter
Civil banishment and a gang-run prostitution ring
(aug-sep '00) Queens Plaza, where the Queensborough Bridge empties and three
converge, has been invaded in the overnight hours with a prostitution ring
run by the street gang, the Bloods. The city identified 21 of the prostitutes
pimps and sought a court order of civil banishment, barring the 21
identified from being seen in public in Queens Plaza between the
hours of 11 p.m. and 7 am. The City claimed that the limitations of the
criminal justice system precluded the government from stemming the pervasive
lawlessness in the area and so warranted a penalty as severe as civil
banishment. The case was brought before Justice Arthur Lonschein of Queens
County Supreme Court. Justice Lonschein expressed concern about the level of
legal representation for the defense, because only four of the 21 defendants
had been found and notified about the lawsuit. The judge worried that the
four private attorneys might not up to arguing the grave constitutional
issues raised by the City's request. On his own initiative, invited the
New York Civil Liberties Union to appear on the defendants' behalf.
Justice Lonschein found that the City had amply demonstrated that the area
was overrun with prostitution activity, solicitation of passing vehicles,
violent criminal acts between gang members, rival pimps, and competing
criminal elements, and that these activities disrupted the neighborhood and
damaged legitimate businesses. The court glumly noted that the City1s
evidence gave lie to the claim that prostitution is a victimless crime.
Nonetheless, the court found that the City failed to demonstrate how
banishing these particular 21 people from Queens Plaza would actually lessen
the problem in the areačhow they are the cause of the problem, and, even if
they were, why others would not simply replace them.
The court ruled that an injunction abridging the right to free
movement anywhere in the City is legal only if it burdens the individual no
more than is necessary to serve a significant governmental interest.
Lonschein explained that a banishment order would be over-broad, prohibiting
all presence in the area, whether lawful or unlawful, yet without any proof
that it will serve the government's interest in eradicating the trade.
Justice Lonschein opinion was long, detailed, and emotional. He was clearly
moved by the City's demonstration of the siege laid by the Bloods in the
area. In the end, however, his ruling was unequivocal. The requested remedy
was ill-conceived and far too imposing. The city's failure to do the homework
necessary to come up with the proof that these 21 particular people deserved
banishment was, he said, "breathtaking."
Meg Sounds Off:
Justice Lonschein's heart-felt opinion struck the right balance. The City is
right to focus on the rampant crime attacking Queens Plaza. The City is even
right to seek novel methods, civil in addition to criminal, to stem such
Prostitutes, upon conviction, are quickly back on the streets. Prosecuting
pimps is practically impossible because they assiduously avoid taking money
in any public setting that could be viewed by watchful officers. But the
City must devise a request that can plausibly attack the crime siege and
thereby will warrant the grave consequence of banishment.
Other jurisdictions have successfully obtained similar court orders, for
instance where gang-run drug rings have thoroughly taken over a
neighborhood. The remedies requested were more precise and more measured.
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
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.
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
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."