Gotham Gazette

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Now More Than Ever: Abolish The City Marshal

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The city should eliminate the marshal position, the author writes (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office:)

Since the 17th century, down on their luck New Yorkers have faced a familiar spectre: a New York City Marshal.

The marshals are enforcers of court judgments including evictions, foreclosures, utility shut-offs, and debt collections. The difference between the New York City Marshals and New York City Sheriffs are that sheriffs are salaried public servants employed by the city while the marshals are technically private entrepreneurs who, despite being appointed by the mayor, are contracted by landlords, banks, utility companies, debt collectors, etc.

For each job, the marshals collect fees and are also entitled to a 5% cut of the total amount collected, known as “poundage.” Not surprisingly, the marshals thrive in times of economic hardship; in 2009, at the nadir of the Great Recession, the marshals recorded their best year to date, with over a third of them having earned over a million dollars. This is why it’s important, now more than ever amid vast economic hardship and more ahead, to abolish the city marshal system and transfer its duties over to the New York City Sheriff’s Office.

You might be wondering: how is it that in 2020 the mayor of the proverbial “greatest city in the world” still appoints what are essentially legally-authorized bounty hunters? Mayor de Blasio, to his credit, has spoken out against the marshal system. But so too have several mayors before him. The reason why the marshals have been able to remain as an immovable part of the city’s firmament is a long history of patronage, influence peddling, and political inertia.

The marshal system was first established in 1655 when New York was then a Dutch colony and has been in operation ever since. Opposition to the marshal system goes back to the early 20th century, with the formation of good government groups that rose against the venalities of Tammany Hall-style influence and corruption. Pressed by groups like Citizens Union, mayors as far back as Fiorello La Guardia sought to abolish the marshal system, and almost every mayor since John Lindsay has come into office nominally against it. (Bloomberg was the exception; he liked the idea of privatized enforcement and appointed 20 new marshals.)

Each ran into the same problem: the New York City marshals are protected under New York State law. The most concerted effort to abolish the marshal system in the state Legislature, which Jack Newfield and Paul DuBrul described in vivid detail in their terrific book “The Abuse of Power,” was in 1975. Organized by Citizens Union, the bill had passed in the State Senate, but failed in the Assembly. The Speaker at the time, Stanley Steingut, ruled over Brooklyn’s Democratic Party, in which patronage plums like recommendations for marshal appointments were a mainstay, and so Steingut smothered the bill by sending it through the Assembly committee of a fellow machine loyalist where it failed to reach the floor for a vote.

Ever since, the marshals have maintained their license to scavenge at the expense of the city’s most indigent by reinvesting no small portion of their earnings into political influence. They are prolific campaign contributors, which is why, despite a succession of mayors who came into office against the marshal system, each not only stood down from their opposition, but also consented to an expansion of the marshals’ powers. Mayors Dinkins and Giuliani, both having received significant contributions from the marshals, ultimately supported legislation that allowed the marshals to collect judgments awarded by the state Supreme Court (in addition to civil court). Today, the marshals’ lobbyist and spokesperson was de Blasio’s biggest bundler in his first campaign for mayor. (De Blasio, apropos of a Bloomberg News series that described the essential role the marshals had played in enforcing a type of predatory lending scheme called “merchant cash advance,” did say in December 2018 that the continuing existence of the marshal system “needs a new look” and questioned whether the system “makes sense at this point,” but nothing ever came of it.)

In 2020, the marshal system simply does not make sense – neither financially, according to the Independent Budget Office, nor as a tool of effective governance, as the backroom “clubhouse” dealmakers who protected the system have ceased to exist.

Indeed, the county party machines are hardly the potent force today as they were decades ago (or two years ago for that matter); while the State Senate Independent Democratic Conference, and especially former IDC leader Senator Jeff Klein – to whom individual marshals, as well as their PAC, had contributed tens of thousands of dollars – had been voted out by a new crop of legislators with a more promising vision of how government should work for people. In other words, the political resistance to this proposal no longer exists.

While the marshal system may still work well for the marshals’ clients: landlords, Con Edison, or debt collectors – who benefit from a privatized enforcement system that incentivizes fast turnover and imposes a merciless discipline on those who are going through a tough time – it does not work well for New Yorkers.

Any realistic anticipation of the economic fallout from COVID-19 that’s underway must take into account that until the federal government figures out how to develop an administrative infrastructure that can deliver stimulus directly into people’s pockets, it is incumbent on state and municipal governments to protect citizens from eviction or having their power turned off or their wages (or stimulus checks) garnished.

Yet, as The City has reported, already the New York City Department of Investigation (which oversees the marshals) has questioned the city’s authority under the current legal status quo to intercede against a marshal’s ability to collect on a debt. But by transferring the marshals’ duties over to the city sheriff’s office – that is, to public servants employed by the city – only those city employees would be authorized to enforce a collection. The same goes for other civil judgments. New York City’s government, in other words, would have a monopoly on enforcement. Instead of delegating this authority to for-profit contractors, the city would be accountable for those most in need.

The city must step up to this task. If the state will allow it.

Duncan Bryer was formerly the Director of Policy for Brooklyn State Senator Julia Salazar. He currently advises the senator and is a graduate student of economics at John Jay College, City University of New York.

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