Saving NYC’s Liberties from America


Proposed law seeks to protect New York’s liberal laws from right-wing judges

The steps of City Hall attract a motley crowd; sitting there all day, it would be possible to see a half-dozen or more press conferences and rallies for myriad causes and campaigns. One day last week Fernando Ferrer appeared with other Latino pols, followed by Councilman Lew Fidler slamming Cablevision’s tax break, followed by Rep. Anthony Weiner accepting a labor union endorsement.

Sometimes the motley crew are all part of the same event. Such was the case yesterday when Manhattan Borough President and mayoral candidate C. Virginia Fields stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Councilwoman Gale Brewer (who has endorsed Fields’ rival Gifford Miller) and civil rights lawyer Norman Siegel (who is running for Public Advocate against an incumbent Democrat). Their targets were Miller, the mayor, and—above all—right-wing judges.

The subject was the
Local Civil Rights Restoration Act of 2005, a bill that Brewer reintroduced last year that bears the technical title “Intro. 22.” It’s been through two hearings in the Committee on General Welfare and has a veto-proof 38 Council co-sponsors. The bill’s backers want Miller to bring it up for a vote and the mayor to sign it.

Intro. 22 adds domestic partnership status to the list of statuses protected from discrimination. It requires that the city’s human rights commission conduct a “thorough” investigation of charges, prohibits retaliation against someone who has made a charge, and boosts the civil penalties for discrimination from $50,000 to $125,000 in the case of discriminatory acts and from $100,000 to $250,000 when the discrimination is “willful, wanton or malicious.”

But the most significant aspect of the law is this passage: “The provisions of this chapter shall be construed independently from similar or identical provisions of state or federal law. Interpretations of state or federal law shall be utilized only to determine the minimum scope of the provisions of this chapter and not to limit the scope of the provisions of this chapter.”

The reason that’s needed, advocates say, is that while New York does enjoy some of the most liberal and comprehensive anti-discrimination laws in the country, judges are sometimes confused on how to apply those laws in light of conservative rulings in federal and state cases. The City Council’s staff report on Into. 22 notes that in one 2004 case, “the Court of Appeals reasoned that broad statements regarding the intended liberal construction of the City’s human rights law are insufficient to justify interpretation of the law to afford broader rights than are protected under comparably worded state or federal laws.”

So Intro. 22 makes clear, says Brewer, that city judges are supposed to use state and federal laws “as a minimal level, not a ceiling.” That, said Siegel, “should be a no-brainer.”

“If this were a bill for Alabama or Mississippi or South Africa, every liberal in New York City would be here saying ‘Right on!'” Siegel added, detecting “hypocrisy” in how the bluest of blue-state cities confronts its own discrimination. “It’s subtle, it’s sophisticated, but it sure does exist.”

Brewer said the Council is working on language that will be acceptable to the mayor, without weakening the law. Fields said passing the law was key to show that, “New York City Council’s commitment to the protection and vigorous enforcement of civil rights laws here in New York City,” although she acknowledged when asked by a reporter that she had not lobbied council members about the bill.