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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
David C. Bloomfield, a professor at Brooklyn College, has served as General Counsel to the New York City Board of Education and to the Manhattan Borough President.

by David C. Bloomfield

The New Corporation Counsel

Lawsuits connected to September 11 crowd the already-strained docket of the New York City Law Department, a city agency that is officially described as attorney for the mayor, for other elected officials, and for most city agencies. More than 1,000 claims have been filed against the city, many by police and fire fighters, totaling more than $7 billion in potential damages. There are negligence suits, negotiations over federal compensation packages for victims, proposals for passage of federal legislation to obtain insurance for ground zero contractors, analysis of land use issues related to rebuilding, and verification of applications for death certificates.

And the person in charge of representing the city in these and many other legal matters is Michael Cardozo, the head of the law department, who is called the corporation counsel. He will not be doing this alone; the department has 650 lawyers on staff. Displaced from their regular offices a block from Ground Zero, many of the assistant corporation counsels toil in temporary space below Cardozo's posher office, sitting at long tables in an environment more like a telemarketing boiler room than a law firm.

Cardozo, who is a former president of the New York City Bar Association and a former partner in one of the city's largest private law firms, Proskauer Rose http://www.proskauer.com/home1.html , plans to spend plenty of time staying out of the courtroom, if he can help it.

What he would like to do is identify areas where the city may not be in legal compliance BEFORE those cases get to court. "Too often the city has said, 'No, no, no!' and judges said the city was wrong," Cardozo says. Not only will his new strategy avoid expensive judgments, he believes, but assure the public that the city "is abiding by the rule of law." Cardozo also wants early settlements to reduce the city's staggering $500 million annual bill for jury awards against the city, as well as last-minute settlements "on the courthouse steps" that can be almost as expensive.

One organizational wrinkle Cardozo must face is the appointment of Carol Robles-Román to the newly created position of deputy mayor for legal affairs. Previously, the corporation counsel was the city's premier legal official, but in creating the new office, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has elevated what was once an obscure advisory post, Counsel to the Mayor, to comparable status with the Corporation Counsel. Cardozo argues that the two positions have separate, co-equal, roles. One does not report to the other. Both, he says, sit in on the mayor's 8 AM staff meetings. The difference between the two jobs? The deputy mayor will be the "mayor's lawyer," he says, while Cardozo considers his job to be that of the "city's lawyer."

Cardozo views his responsibilities as encompassing such varied hypothetical questions as, "Is it OK for the Human Resources Administration to do this? Should we remove fireboxes? Should we settle 'x' case for 'y' dollars?" Even in areas where Robles-Román may be the point person, Cardozo will be involved. For example, the New York City Bar Association recently criticized the Law Department under the previous administration for its failure to actively pursue litigation on behalf of the Human Rights Commission. That "interesting report" http://www.abcny.org/currentarticle/Human Rights Law.html, Cardozo says, is receiving specific attention from both him and the deputy mayor for legal affairs.

Cardozo, who is corporation counsel for a mayor who is both new to government and a non-lawyer, says that the administration will reveal its vision of governance in part through the positions it takes in various legal issues. Stay tuned in the months and years ahead for further developments in the case of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church's treatment of the homeless, where the city is appealing a judge's ruling permitting the church to shelter homeless on its adjacent sidewalk; prison litigation, where the city will try to extend its discretion by ending years of court-ordered mandates.; efforts in Albany for "tort reform," where the city will try to limit its liability in lawsuits brought against it for negligence; and that hoped-for reduction in the number of cases going to trial.


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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