Editor's note: We welcome our first "Lex and the City" column, which is about legal issues the city has faced. Today's column is especially timely, as it's the last Friday of the month - Critical Mass time!
This week in Washington, John Roberts was confirmed as the Chief Justice of the United States. While the media will focus on the big cases and the big personalities that decide them, it's easy to overlook the law that happens locally. New York City has a rich legal history full of important cases decided by some of the country's most respected and best loved judges. Local issues have turned into Supreme Court cases, and even city cases that were never appealed can be meaningful across the country simply because they happened here. In the grand scheme of things, Martha Stewart's trial affects you far less than many of the decisions made under the radar in state court.
Everywhere law is around you – whether it's the NYPD searching your bags in the subway, or the zoning decisions that will soon redevelop Williamsburgh. Today Gothamist starts a series of pieces on the homegrown law of New York City.
In the wake of high gas prices and increasing traffic just about everywhere, a fitting place to begin is the Queensboro Bridge, where, in 1991, five bicyclists began a crusade against cars. The year 1991, when this story takes place, isn't too different from the year 2005 – we have a President named George Bush, a war in Iraq, and a sizable oil problem. Meanwhile, traffic is getting worse, especially in New York City, and belligerent bicyclists have organized to fight for their rights on the street. In the state case People v. Gray, the judge not only permitted the protests but held that the bicyclists had no choice but to rouse some rabble. Lives were at stake.
The city had created a bike lane on the Queensboro Bridge in 1979, under heavy pressure from a political group called Transportation Alternatives. Twelve years later, this group still existed (and it exists today as we all know) but the bicycle lane would be no more – the city converted it into a traffic lane during rush hours. Led by the media-savvy Charles Komanoff, a band of six bicyclists continued to protest for their bike lane every week until they were arrested on charges of disorderly conduct.
Though they could have just paid a small fine and wheeled away, the Queensboro Six, as they came to be known, decided to go to trial. The QB6 also decided to get creative. They claimed their actions were justified by necessity.
Too often the butt of jokes themselves, lawyers must have found this turn of events laughable, at best. The necessity defense is used by the husband who breaks traffic laws to save his dying wife's life, or the sidewalk hero who punches out a robber mugging a defenseless woman. The necessity defense excuses people who commit one type of harm to prevent a much greater, imminent harm. Protesters of all stripes have attempted to use the necessity defense to justify their civil disobedience – anti-abortion activists, environmentalists, and even people lobbying for D.C. statehood. All of them have failed.
There was something in the air that week in March, though - perhaps it was large amounts of particulate pollution – and Judge Laura Safer-Espinoza ruled that the pedalists-in-protest were justified in taking action. New York City was devastatingly distant from meeting EPA standards for pollution (it still is), its bridges were falling apart from overuse (they still are), and bicyclists were in jeopardy of injuries now that their one safe road had been closed. Encouraging walking and bicycling was the best, if not the only, way to make a dent in the number of cars on the road.
Defendant-demagogue Komanoff, who had served as an expert witness himself and as an energy issues consultant, had provided the court with all the statistics it could ever want. Most notably, he had offered a study showing that 49% of New Yorkers living within 10 miles of their work would bike to work if the city made accomodations for them to do so. The judge was clearly moved, and cited statistic after statistic about traffic's effects on pollution, and pollution's effect on cancer rates.
Most protesters fail when they raise a necessity defense because they did not pursue legal alternatives to civil disobedience. In this case, though, Judge Safer-Espinoza noted that letter-writing campaigns did little. Meanwhile, massive protest had often prompted civic change, especially on transportation issues. Mayor Koch had tried to ban bicycles from Midtown Manhattan in 1987, only to be thwarted by protests from the Transportation Alternatives members. To get the wheels spinning, they had no choice but to turn some heads.
The defendants were acquitted, and today bicyclists have 24-hour access to the North Outer Roadway of the Queensboro Bridge (though Transportation Alternatives still has a bone to pick.) The bicyclists' success in *People v. Gray* shouldn't drive anyone to violent acts of two-wheeled terrorism. Rather, it should remind us that the courts can play a role in big movements in unexpected ways. Later this year, for example, a federal court in California will hear a lawsuit blaming two oil companies for causing global warming. Creative arguments can die without a peep, but if they live, they do so loudly.