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Athena Isn't Smiling Yet

Mar 2001

The seal of the Association, reproduced to the right, carries the likeness of Athena, The Greek Goddess of Wisdom, in what the Committee that devised our seal called her "favorite character" as "Guardian of the City." This is an apt reminder that one of the key functions of the City Bar is the civic function of using our legal skills to protect the City of New York against wrongs of all kinds.

Today Albany, the seat of our state government, holds the key to the welfare of the City. That is why so much of the work of the City Bar is related to Albany and why that focus needs to be increased in the future. A progress report on four important City Bar initiatives illustrates Albany's importance.

Assigned Counsel Fees

Assigned Counsel fees were the subject of a recent column. Since then, the Governor presented a budget that contained no money for fee increases. However, he, the Speaker of the Assembly and the Majority Leader of the Senate (the "three men in a room") did announce an agreement to agree on a plan for fee increases in the future.

It is a good step for the "three men in a room" finally to commit to address assigned counsel fees. Yet the word is that if increases are agreed upon-and not every agreement to agree results in actual legislation-the increase will not be effective until the 2002-2003 fiscal year. Since we face an immediate crisis, delay in taking corrective action harms the poor in all parts of the State, with severe impact in New York City.

We will press our case in Albany. This year's Law Day on May 1 is dedicated to "The Best Interests of the Child." Grossly inadequate assigned counsel fees make it impossible for the courts to determine the best interests of the child in a timely fashion since assigned counsel play a key role in juvenile and domestic violence proceedings. The City Bar will lead a rally in Albany on May 1 of lawyers from around the state in support of assigned counsel fee increases.

Rockefeller Drug Laws

Approximately 22,000 of the some 70,000 people imprisoned in New York are imprisoned for non-violent drug offenses. Nearly 95% of those so imprisoned are people of color. The enforcement of these laws disproportionately hurts New York City residents and families. Reforming the laws has for many years been a top City Bar priority.

Governor Pataki has recently submitted legislation that makes a good start at reform. His plan does not, however, go as far as we think it must if the swollen incarceration rate is to be substantially reduced. For example, his plan does not go far enough to place the decision as to the treatment alternative in the hands of the judge rather than the prosecutor, as under current law. There needs to be more retroactivity. And while a reduction in the incarceration rate can provide new funds for drug treatment as the Governor proposes, there should be further assurance of sufficient funding at the initial stages of the program to make certain that treatment alternatives are available.

Our Executive Committee recently endorsed an all out effort to persuade Albany to achieve real reform. Three of our committees are hard at work with me implementing that mandate.

Education Funding

In 1993 Mayor Dinkins started, and Mayor Giuliani subsequently continued, a lawsuit against the State that alleged that public school students in New York City do not receive a sound basic education. This admission was an act of political courage. In 1995 the Court of Appeals held that the State must provide a sound basic education but held that the City, as a creature of the State, could not challenge Albany's failure to provide adequate funding. A citizen suit proceeded, and recently Justice Leland DeGrasse found that the sound basic education requirement had been violated. The State has appealed.

The City Bar has argued that state education funding should take account of higher costs in New York City and should be based on student enrollment rather than attendance. Justice DeGrasse agreed with these positions. Just as with the Rockefeller Drug Laws, there is an important racial component to the education funding issue. Eighty-four percent of public school students in New York are minority. Whether or not what President George W. Bush has called the subtle prejudice of low expectation plays a role, there can be no doubt that inadequate state funding has a racial impact. On this basis, Justice DeGrasse found a violation of federal civil rights laws. While the Association does not fault the State for appealing Justice DeGrasse's ruling, we urge the Attorney General and the Plaintiffs to waste no time in exploring all opportunities for reasonable settlement so that the benefits to the City of such a settlement can be available as soon as possible. Focusing on productivity is also important, but this focus should extend to all areas of State and City government where the potential for productivity savings has been estimated to exceed $10 billion.

Three Men in a Room

The harm that Albany sometimes inflicts on the City stems in part from the "three men in a room" system. Our legislators say they fight for the City in conference, but we do not know what they say or what responses come back because these conferences are closed to the public. City representatives sometimes have to defer to their leader's desire to win close races elsewhere. There can be no other reason why so many legislators from the City voted to repeal the commuter income tax or why the Assembly majority has shown at best weak leadership in pressing for Rockefeller drug law reform.

The Association's Committee on State Governance Reform has made an important proposal to open the process. We want to increase the role of legislative committees so that they can function as a forum for outcome-shaping debate and a pathway through which bills can actually reach the floor for a vote.

Incredibly, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno recently moved in the opposite direction. He changed Senate rules to make it harder for the Senate minority to cause a debate or a recorded vote. Some members, it seems, are willing to further concentrate power so that they will have nothing for which to answer. They live in a cozy, taxpayer financed, cocoon. It is time to awake.

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