"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, 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
by Margaret Reuter,
Center for New York City Law at New York Law School
In the News: City Parade-Permitting Program to Go on Trial
(may '00) The Second Circuit federal court has just called for an examination of the
standards the City uses for granting (or denying) permits for parades and
other street events. The case involved a group called Million Marijuana
March which wanted to march from Washington Square Park up Fifth Avenue to
Central Park at 96th Street, on Saturday, May 2, 1998. The group has a long
tradition of holding rallies on the first weekend in May to promote the
legalization of marijuana.
Free speech rights guarantee us the chance to gather, rally, perform and
speak in the public spaces of the City. That includes the sidewalks,
plazas, parks and even streets. A single speaker can pretty much set up
anywhere, anytime. When many want to gather, it necessarily means that
others will be displaced. In order not to disrupt normal City life, the US
Supreme Court has ruled that the government may set reasonable restrictions
on the time, place, and manner of the gathering, including requiring the
sponsors to first get a permit. The Supreme Court has also instructed,
however, that the permit decision-makers cannot have unbridled discretion to
grant or deny permits because that could lead to discrimination based on the
content of the speech--anathema to the Constitution.
New York City, like every city, requires permits for events that take over
the sidewalks, that close some traffic lanes or an entire street, or even
that dominate a park or section of one. The City has different sets of
permit rules for each of these events. The City's parade permit law, NYC
Admin. Code ß10-110, dating back to 1937, allows permits for parades and
processions, though not along high-traffic or high-commerce routes (unless
the businesses are to be closed), nor if the NYPD believes the event will be
"disorderly in character or tend to disrupt the peace." But it allows for
special permits for any route if it is for an occasion of "extraordinary
public interest." Million Marijuana March organizers challenged that the
two quoted provisions were so open-ended that they were unconstitutional.
Initially, US District Judge Leonard Sand dismissed their suit, stating that
the rules were content neutral and did not vest NYPD with excessive
discretion. The Second Circuit reviewed the case, but concluded that there
was not enough evidence in the record to assess the constitutionality of the
City law. While the local law itself might grant broad discretion, if the
NYPD in practice applied even, objective standards, then the law could be
upheld. The appellate court sent the case back for a trial on the Police
Meg Sounds Off: It's not so easy to craft fair street events rules
Placing the Police Department's parade-permitting program on trial will be
illuminating. Will it show that the police process thousands of permit
requests a year? That they try to accommodate nearly everyone? That they
have clear rules so that event sponsors know what is reasonable to ask? Do
they process the applications expeditiously so that organizers can
effectively promote their events? Or not? High profile cases in recent
years have cast an unflattering light on the parade permitting program
(e.g., Million Youth March in 1998 and 1999, a police brutality march in
October 1998). Were those marches the exception or the rule?
With hindsight, it often seems glaringly obvious that a permit was unfairly
denied. Prospectively, however, it is far more difficult to craft a set of
rules that can judiciously balance our free speech needs (to speak and to
hear) against the mundane needs of getting business done, and at the same
time wisely handle all the million different kinds of street permit requests
the police receive. Is there a principled way for the City to close major
thoroughfares to celebrate great events (ending a war, placing a man on the
moon) but not allow the same route to be closed for a major protest of
government policies? What if a major film director wanted to close that
same thoroughfare to film a Tom Hanks movie? What if alot of neighbors
wanted to close the same thoroughfare for a street fair? What if a protest
sponsor could credibly demonstrate that a quarter million people will be
coming to their planned rally? What if the sponsors would love a quarter
million people to come, but actually would be lucky if 1,000 people came?
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
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."