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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 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

Love and let love

(Feb '01) Sara Levin reached a life-time goal, admission to Albert Einstein Medical College at Yeshiva University. She was also in love. Her partner was proud. As she made arrangements to start school, she went to the college housing office to apply for campus housing.

Yeshiva provides below-market housing for its students, including married student housing for the spouses and children of its married students. Sara and her partner, Carla Richmond are not married. They are lesbians. Under New York State law, they cannot marry. They have celebrated their commitment to each other in a far less formalized way. Knowing that New York has some of the most progressive civil rights laws protecting against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and marital status, Sara applied for married student housing for herself and Carla. Yeshiva turned her down. She did not provide a marriage certificate as required by the university housing department, nor could she have. Yeshiva did offer Sara housing for herself.

Sara sued the university under the state and city human rights laws, arguing that the medical school discriminated against her illegally, and that their housing policies disparately disadvantaged gay and lesbian couples who could not obtain a marriage license no matter how much they loved and cared for each other.

Sara's claim has not been well received in court. In fact she has lost the first two rounds. But there is a bit of hope in the offing, more about that later. At the trial court level, Justice Franklin R. Weissburg found no such discrimination. He ruled that Sara was not mistreated--she was offered housing. It didn't matter to the university that she was lesbian. It didn't matter to the university what her marital status was. According to Justice Weissburg, the university's housing policy merely recognized the great legal and societal significance attached to the institution of marriage and Sara's dispute really lies with the State Legislature and its refusal to recognize same-sex marriages, not with Yeshiva University. The appellate court agreed.

The bit of hope lies in the State's highest court, the New York State Court of Appeals. They agreed to hear the case. Like the US Supreme Court, the New York Court of Appeals chooses which cases they will hear. A litigant's right to appeal is only to the first appellate level.

The main reason for hope is that in 1989, the Court of Appeals broke ground nationally in a case called Braschi v. Stahl Associates Company. That case concerned the rights of family members to remain in a rent-controlled apartment once the primary tenant died. The Court of Appeals ruled that the term "family" in the rent law should be read broadly and include homosexual partners whose relationship is long term and marked by emotional and financial commitment and interdependence. The trial court in Sara's case did not think the Braschi decision applied to the Yeshiva case. The trial court noted that the rent law at issue in Braschi used the term family, the Yeshiva housing rules only refer to married couples. Perhaps Sara's case will be the vehicle for the courts to acknowledge that sharing a home is one of the most fundamental desires of sincerely committed couples whether of the opposite sex or the same.

Meg Sounds Off:

It's time for same-sex marriages to be honored

It's high time New York State recognizes same-sex marriages. Most open-hearted folks would agree that where two people make a life time commitment to each other it is fair to afford them the same rights, privileges, and responsibilities that are afforded traditionally married couples. Housing and shelter rights, employee benefit rights, inheritance rights, and more. The list is really quite long once you start thinking about it.

Courts and various governmental agencies have decided that many rights and privileges should be extended to gay and lesbian families. But how to decide who is "committed" or not? Without the simple marriage license, the courts, the city, and its agencies are forced to set up an inquiry that is far too personal whether this gay couple or that lesbian couple are sufficiently committed to rank as "family" or "married"--how much do they hold themselves out as a couple, how much do they show mutual responsibility, how much are their finances intermingled, how long have they been together, how often they go to family functions together. Any heterosexual couple may marry without questioning their bona fides, without questioning the foolishness or shallowness of their commitment. Let's stay out of the business of making couples prove how much they treasure each other. Let them decided when and if to marry.


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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