New York's highest court handed Mayor Michael Bloomberg a Valentine on February 14 -- and took it away from domestic partners -- ruling four to three that the mayor was within his rights not to enforce the City Council’s Equal Benefits Law.
The ruling by the Court of Appeals is a setback not just for people in such partnerships, but for the New York City Council's ability to use the power of the purse for social justice. What’s more, it may significantly limit the council’s right to pass laws that the mayor contends run afoul of state and federal laws.
Domestic partners, gay and straight, have been able to register with the city since 1991, and employees of the city government have been entitled to benefits for their domestic partners since Mayor David Dinkins settled a court case in 1993. While many private companies provide domestic partner benefits to their workers as a way to be fair and competitive, they are not required to do so under city law.
The City Council tried to broaden the number of private firms providing such benefits by passing Councilmember Christine Quinn’s Equal Benefits Law in 2004, overriding a veto by Mayor Bloomberg to enact it. The law requires contractors who do more than $100,000 worth of business with the city to treat the domestic partners of employees the same as spouses in the provision of benefits.
The mayor challenged the validity of the law and refused to enforce it. While city contracts are full of requirements on everything from paying a living wage (a bill he signed) to complying with the city’s human rights law, Bloomberg has said repeatedly that on principle and under the law, the procurement process should not be used to “advance social causes.” Last June, he even went so far as to say that the city should not have used it to fight apartheid in South Africa.
Bloomberg has also criticized the practice of using the city’s shareholder power to advance social causes, a leading activity of City Comptroller William Thompson. The mayor has nevertheless not stopped his Finance Commissioner, Martha Stark, from continuing to collaborate with Thompson on these shareholder resolutions in her capacity as head of the City Employees’ Retirement System and the Teachers’ Retirement System.
In October 2004, Matt Foreman, director of the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force, who once called the Equal Benefits Law the most important piece of gay legislation in the state, resigned his position on the City Human Rights Commission to protest Bloomberg’s obstruction of the law. Late last year, Foreman returned to the commission at the mayor’s request.
The Court of Appeals majority decision (in pdf format) said, “Where a local law seems to conflict with a state or federal one, the mayor’s obligation is to obey the latter, as the mayor has done here.” The city’s Corporation Counsel had argued that the Equal Benefits Law violated the state Municipal Home Rule Law and federal insurance laws.
Stephen Holley, the City Council’s attorney, told the AP, “I find it remarkable that the mayor can ignore a law passed over his veto. It’s a close call we lost. It’s unfortunate.”
Alan Van Capelle, director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, the gay lobby, said, “New York City is underwriting discrimination. [The] ruling does not say that this practice is not happening or render any opinion about whether it is right or wrong. It just says the Equal Benefits Bill is not the mechanism to correct it."
Christine Quinn, now the Speaker of the City Council, told the New York Times, “What this says is if the mayor disregards our law, I have to sue first...” She has vowed to revive the law both through legislative action in Albany and asking the court for a re-hearing of the case. Similar laws in other localities from San Francisco to Portland, Maine have been upheld in whole or in part by state and federal courts. She called the ruling of New York’s court “disappointing and flawed.”
She has said in the past that she will also look into compelling the mayor to enforce the Dignity in All Schools Act, an anti-bullying law that he has termed “illegal” and “silly.”
The fight over domestic partner rights would be rendered moot for the most part if lesbian and gay couples had the right to marry. Bloomberg has been successful in stopping that from taking place in the city, getting the Appellate Division to overturn in December a lower court ruling that he had to open marriage to same-sex couples. The case is now being appealed by Lambda Legal Defense to the Court of Appeals and Bloomberg has said--perversely in light of the resources he has expended fighting it--that he “hopes” he loses the constitutional arguments before the high court.
Andy Humm, a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights, has been in charge of the civil rights topic page since its inception in 2001. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (34 on Time-Warner; 107 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.