Easy-to-use Sources for New York State Law
Our class discussions about using free, online resources to search for federal law reminded me that I wasn’t always so quick to jump to Lexis or Westlaw. Before law school, I worked for the New York State Assembly, at first doing research and later writing press for certain Assemblymembers. With limited access to paid search engines, my office routinely relied on free resources to look up new bills and to research legislative history, helping us to better understand how a bill would affect a particular Member’s district. These resources can be incredibly helpful when trying to understand the nuts and bolts of a complex law, and the reasons behind and the implications of a new bill.
One such source is the website of the New York State Legislature (http://public.leginfo.state.ny.us/menuf.cgi). This website allows a user to search for Senate and Assembly bills, past and present. By entering a session year and a bill number (for example “A123” or “S456”), this source will retrieve the text of the bill, the names of the sponsors, the location of the bill in the committee process, the number of the companion bill, and the accompanying sponsor’s memo. As the purpose of some of these bills can be difficult to determine—the bills originating in the Judiciary committee are famously inscrutable—the sponsor’s memo succinctly provides the aim of the legislation and summarizes any changes that the bill hopes to achieve. The sponsor’s memo also provides the fiscal impact of the bill, and any relevant legislative history. In addition to allowing searches for legislation, this website has a link to the Laws of New York. The laws are organized by category, providing links to chapter and title numbers, which will help you narrow down your search. And, there is a search field for “words and phrases,” just in case you are not sure of the appropriate category.
The Senate and Assembly websites can also be pretty enlightening, however it’s wise to recognize that some of the information is most definitely politically motivated. Both websites (http://assembly.state.ny.us/, http://www.nysenate.gov/) offer a database of press releases, arranged by elected official and by category. These press releases often summarize the essential components of a new law in bullet points, and explain the practical effects of the law. But again, even though the press releases provide valuable background information, it is important to look beyond the rhetoric. These are political documents, and it’s a good idea to peruse both the majority and minority publications to get a more objective sense of what the legislation actually accomplishes. In addition to the press releases of Members and Senators, these sites also compile legislative reports, committee reports, and a way to quickly search for bills, which can help to supplement the information provided in the press releases.
I’ve also found that blogs that report on state legislative proceedings can provide invaluable supplemental material. Every morning, my workday began with coffee and “The Daily Politics,” a blog on the New York Daily News website (http://www.nydailynews.com/blogs/dailypolitics), covering all things Albany. I also highly recommend “Capitol Confidential” (http://blog.timesunion.com/capitol/) and “Capitol Tonight” (http://www.capitaltonight.com/stateofpolitics/), blogs that contribute sound bites from bill sponsors, which can really shed light on the intentions of the legislation. The posts on these blogs, while occasionally catering to the more tawdry details of the New York State legislative process—Spitzer anyone?—are always incredibly timely, offering an objective view of legislative actions and the motivations behind them.
I left the Assembly shortly after the Governor Spitzer scandal (and thankfully before the embarrassment that occurred in the New York State Senate in the summer of 2009), which spurred a movement towards more transparency in New York’s legislative process. A final website that I’ll leave you with is that of New York’s “Project Sunlight” (www.sunlightny.org). I think this website has had some growing pains (the mission statement is signed by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo) and might not yet be realizing its full potential, but the motivation behind it is great. It aims to increase public access to legislative materials. In doing so, it has created a way to browse bills, state contracts, member items (think “pork” that legislators bring home to their districts), and lobbyist activity. The site also has a collection of bill and veto jackets, which provide a view of the legislative history by displaying documents submitted in support of and in opposition to particular pieces of legislation. Although this website admittedly relies on the efforts of other agencies to submit information to it and it might not be totally complete, the goals of the site are laudable in that it strives to provide a free and full picture of the New York State legislative process.