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Internet resources for what you need to know on NYC Law

by Margaret Reuter, Center for New York City Law at New York Law School

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: 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 [email protected]

Meg's Top Five Sites For Beginners:

  • Center for New York City Law - The site excerpts select reports from each issue of City Law, a monthly magazine published by the NYLS. Features a section on the City Charter (soon to be updated with 1999 Charter developments) and critiques of nearly 40 City government-oriented websites (with links). Recommended: the analysis of the City's sex shop enforcement efforts.
  • 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.
  • Charter Revision Commission - The newly appointed Commission is barely in gear. The site has yet to post a hearing schedule or even provide a staff listing. It does however include a letter from Randy Mastro, Chair, to Claude Millman, Executive Director of the commission listing the 26 issues that he would like the commission to examine.
  • Association of the Bar of the City of New York - Site of the City Bar Association, 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.
  • 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.

In the News: Sex in the City

The City is about to complete its first full year of enforcing the new sex shop zoning law - forbidding nude or topless clubs, theatres, and book and video stores within 500 feet of any church, school, residential district or of another sex shop. Passed in September 1995, constitutional challenges delayed enforcement of the law until 22 July 1998.

The upshot: the City's enforcement effort has been determined, but so have the sex shops defensive maneuverings. The most curious developments have centered on the law's definition of an adult establishment (i.e. sex shop) as one where a "substantial portion" is devoted to exposing private body parts or certain erotic or sexual activities. Topless and nude dancing clubs have rearranged their interiors turning 60 percent of the floor area into cigar rooms, sports bars, and the like, arguing that if their employees stay (barely) clothed in those rooms, the club is not a sex shop.

The unforeseen (and slightly humorous) result? The courts have counted every square foot of the club's floor area allocating each inch to the adult or non-adult column, or excluding it from the 60:40 ratio calculation. Following this physical examination, in most cases, the courts have largely rejected this defense strategy. They argued that the new interior renovations were a sham and deemed the side attractions too closely linked to the main adult attractions to qualify as separate areas. Though fixed walls with a bouncer stationed at the doorway and little viewing opportunity of the spicy side of the club have been okayed, mylar curtains, plexiglass, and shoji curtains were inadequate partitions of a non-adult area. Areas used for private dancing with customers or bikini-clad lap dancing are considered too connected with the adult activities to qualify as non-adult. Sectioning off a lounge, TV room, and cigar bar qualified as non-adult until later inspections showed the cigar room was only open to customers escorted by off-stage dancers for private lap dances for an extra fee. A game room that was closed on each inspection did not qualify as a customer accessible area. As for hallways, lobbies, and bathrooms, no consistent rulings have emerged when or whether they are considered adult, non-adult, or neither in the square footage calculation.

More than 50 judicial opinions and orders have been issued to date, many padlocking the sex shops found to violate the zoning law's siting edicts. The City successfully closed numerous shops, including some of the most notorious. Many have re-opened. And some have even been padlocked again. The final size and character of the sex industry in New York City is uncertain, but it is clear that it will be quite different from the way it was in 1995, when the zoning change was put in place.

Other Recommendations:

  • City Council - Besides profiling its members, the site allows the user to search local laws and explains how a bill becomes law.
  • 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.

Meg Sounds Off:

Effectiveness of federal/city welfare reform: In November 96, the State Comptroller and Deputy Comptroller for New York City issued a report expressing concern about the CityĻs capacity to absorb former welfare recipients into the labor force. The Comptroller then sued and recently won the right to gather and examine the City Human Resources Administration records tracking the number of welfare recipients finding jobs. (Court of Appeals' decision: April 1999). A thorough examination of these records will be an essential tool for mid-course corrections. Why not post all the raw data on the Internet?

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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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