New York's Artists Take Their Case to the Supreme Court

Artists hope to reverse a decision that prevents virtually precludes them selling work in public. LBH Photo/Alamy

The New York City artists who have long litigated to sell their work in public parks have officially asked the U.S. Supreme Court to consider their case, according to legal documents filed earlier this week.

Robert Lederman, who heads activist group Artists' Response To Illegal State Tactics (A.R.T.I.S.T.), wants the Supremes to reverse a lower court's recent decision allowing the city to regulate where creatives can publicly set up shop.

As previously reported by Newsweek, Lederman and his allies claim that the City's 2010 code effectively bars them from selling their art, since the rule limits the number of artist-vendors in the city's most popular public spaces - Central Park, Union Square Park, Battery Park, and the High Line.

Lederman and his legal team, Julie Milner and Svetlana Minevich, have argued that these regulations violate their Constitutional rights to free expression and equal protection under the law, since the city allows buskers to perform virtually wherever they chose on public property.

They also contend that the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled against them in September, was wrong in refusing their requests to depose city officials -- and in deciding, more broadly, that governmental officials should be protected from depositions save for "exceptional" circumstance.

What Milner and Minevich argue in their petition, submitted on Dec. 23, one day before their filing deadline, is that the Second Circuit's ruling means far more than cut-and-dry violations of Constitutional protections or bad court procedures.

They claim that the case merits the U.S. Supreme Court's attention because the Second Circuit's decision clashes with other circuits' decisions on similar matters - which means there's no consistent precedent across the country on artist-vendors or depositions.

Their petition sums it up thusly: "This Court should grant the Petition to settle the law and resolve these aforementioned controversies."

Lederman further worries that "if the Supreme Court allows the lower court ruling to stand, government officials will be immune from ever being called to account for their misdeeds."

The artist advocates have many obstacles ahead of them. First, the stats are stacked heavily against them: The U.S. Supreme Court only agrees to hear between 100 and 150 "of the more than 7,000 cases that it is asked to review each year." And even if the court gives the case a green light, Lederman will have to raise funds from artists around the country to cover the extensive legal fees. (Just printing the petition according to the U.S. Supreme Court's standards cost $24,000.)

The city, which maintains that the September decision reflects a "careful balance between the rights of First Amendment vendors and the city's valid interest in ensuring that parks can be enjoyed by the public," is poised to keep fighting Lederman. Sources close to the matter tell Newsweek that the city will likely file an opposition brief to thwart the artists' petition.