"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.
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
Low Fees For Court-Appointed Attorneys
New York State has not increased compensation for court-appointed
attorneys in criminal and family courts since 1986. The current rate, $40
per hour in court ($25 per hour out of court), ranks 49th among the 50 states.
As a result, attorneys are abandoning such work.
"Every year I cut back more and more," says Curtis Farber, a Manhattan-based
solo practitioner who handles felonies. "I question why I'm doing it. It's
A six-week boycott of new family court assignments took
place early last year in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan, and has been
followed by more and more frequent job actions.
"There is chaos,
there are delays, there are adjournments," Chief Administrative
Judge Jonathan Lippman told the New York Law Journal. "Family court judges are walking the halls looking
for people to take cases . . . We can not continue at those rates or there
will be no one left..."
Last year a judicial committee
called the system for providing counsel to the poor, "outmoded, underfunded,
overburdened and organizationally chaotic," depriving poor New Yorkers of the
"meaningful and effective" representation they are guaranteed under state
In New York,
private attorneys representing indigent defendants are referred to as members
"18-B" panel, referring to County Law Article 18-B which provides for many of these
government payments. Most 18-B attorneys are solo practitioners. The
Women's Bar Association of the State of New York estimates that,
with office overhead and self-employment taxes, the true rate received by
these panel attorneys for out of court work is sometimes barely more than
minimum wage. The result is a precipitous drop in available representation.
Yet, at the same time, the need for them has increased sharply. According to
the Office of Court Administration , during the period between 1995 and 1999,
assignments in criminal proceedings to New York and Bronx counties
increased from 62,800 to 177,000. During the same period, the number of
panel attorneys significantly declined. Only about 400 lawyers
accepted more than 10 assignments during the year 2000.
The judicial committee found that similar figures exist for assignments in
family court, "where the high volume of cases and routine short supply of
lawyers negatively impacts the quality of representation and often leads to
severe adverse consequences for the parties in proceedings involving child
custody and visitation, child abuse and neglect, termination of parental
rights, and domestic violence."
Proposed solutions to the problem range from a small increase in
remuneration to a complete overhaul of the system for employing and paying
appointed counsel. New York's chief judge, Judith Kaye, favors almost
doubling the rates, $75 per hour
for felony representation and $60 for misdemeanors. Some judges are
approving increased hourly fees on a case by case basis, prompting the Office
of Court Administration to fear that such awards would undermine its budget.
Whether such judges' awards usurp the legislature's powers is the subject of
a newly filed lawsuit in upstate Broome County. In February, federal judge
Jack Weinstein issued an order, now under appeal, requiring a $90 per hour
fee for representation of indigent victims of
domestic violence whose children had been removed from home. Subsequently,
as reported in the New York Times, Judge Weinstein indicated he would rule
unconstitutional, calling New York's appointed-counsel system "largely a
sham." The women have rights, he reportedly said, but they are left to
assert them with lawyers who do not investigate their cases or even confer
Attorney Curtis Farber confirms that in criminal court, few panel attorneys
travel to meet clients in jail, but wait for less private, more convenient,
courthouse interviews. "It's falling apart," he says, echoing Chief
Administrative Judge Lippman. "Demoralization pervades their ability to
A report on the problem is due from a task force appointed by Governor
George Pataki, but state budget woes after September 11 have dampened hopes
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."