S.C. Frustrated by Lack Of Clarity in New York Law
Good Morning folks,
I had the opportunity to attend yesterday’s Supreme Court oral arguments in the Expressions Hair Design case. For a lawyer this is kind of the legal equivalent to a trip to Mecca. Although it is impossible to tell from oral arguments what the ultimate outcome of any case will be, it is safe to say that the Supreme Court is not a big fan of New York’s bill drafting technique. Take a look at Section 518 of New York’s General Business Law and see if you share the court’s frustration that the intent of the law is far from clear.
This case involves an argument by merchants who claim that Section 518 violates their First Amendment rights by prohibiting them to explain the true cost of credit to consumers. In contrast, much of the argument was taken up, however, with a discussion of the statute’s meaning rather than the underlying constitutional issues. Three of the Justices’, Alito, Sotomayor and Kagan argued that the statute could be interpreted as mandating a single price for all goods. In fact, Justice Alito mused that this might be an “uninformed” interpretation and that he felt uncomfortable about ruling on the constitutionality of this statue without knowing how the New York’s Court of Appeals would interpret it.
The Truth in Lending Act used to use language identical to Section 518 to ban surcharges as a matter of Federal Law. Section 518 was passed by the legislature amid concerns that this national provision was going to expire. At the same time the legislature never defined what a “surcharge” is. In addition, although the attorney general has opined that the law permits merchants to offer cash discounts, this authority is similarly not to be found in the statute’s language.
This lack of clarity led a frustrated Justice Sotomayor to complain to the state “You’re asking me to take a lot of steps, which is start with the language of the statute, ignore it, and go to a Federal statute and apply its definitions. How many of them, you haven’t quite told me. How you differ, you haven’t quite told me. And –but I’m going to assume the Federal definitions apply, even though none of them are used here”. “So I’m –I’m very confused why you’re starting your answer to Justice Breyer by saying, look at the statute and see what the words of the statute are doing.”
Notwithstanding the fact that my powers of prognostication are not as sharp as they used to be-I would have taken Alabama over Clemson and the Giants over the Packers-I am going to guess based on yesterday’s arguments this case will ultimately be sent to the New York Court of Appeals with a request that it interpret the statue on behalf of the Federal Courts.
The funny thing is that Section 518 is by no means unique. In New York bill hearings are non-existent, committees are pro forma get-togethers, and all the real important stuff is done behind closed doors. This is not a system that lends itself to clarity. I have always been amazed it works as well as it does.