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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

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 degrading."

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 law.

In New York, private attorneys representing indigent defendants are referred to as members of the "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 the rates 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 with them.

Attorney Curtis Farber confirms that in criminal court, few panel attorneys now 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 represent."

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 of an early solution.

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" 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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Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation and is made possible by support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Altman Foundation,the Fund for the City of New York and donors to Citizens Union Foundation. Please consider supporting Citizens Union Foundation's public education programs. Critical early support to Gotham Gazette was provided by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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