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As an associate for a major Wall Street law firm, I had deposed Donald Trump. I had also litigated in landlord-tenant court. So I thought I knew something about blowhards and a little about due process. But I knew nothing — nothing until I encountered the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission. In a career shift, I was attending the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and spending a lot of time in taxi garages, asking immigrant cabbies about their lives in America and behind the wheel. Some drivers would talk; others walked away. But when the conversation turned to the Taxi and Limousine Commission, I got an earful every time. At turns, the cabbies described the TLC and its court as Kafkaesque, Stalinist, kangaroo. Intrigued, in early January I called Allan Fromberg, the TLC deputy commissioner for public affairs. Fromberg told me he thought the agency’s administrative hearings were closed. Why don’t you interview a lawyer instead, he suggested. Closed? Weren’t judicial proceedings in America supposed to be open? I went to Rector Street in downtown Manhattan where certain hearings are held. I asked to see a judge for permission to sit in. The receptionist asked if I had spoken to Fromberg. I admitted I had. “What did Mr. Fromberg say?” she asked. I told her I was confident that if it was okay with the judge, it was okay with Fromberg. Instead of a judge, I got Fromberg again. Arriving red-faced, Fromberg declared that the judge had no say. He, Fromberg, set the policy for the TLC, and his policy was that the TLC hearings are closed. “But why are the courts closed?” I asked. “Because it’s agency policy,” Fromberg said. “Is this policy in writing?” “Yes.” “Can I see it?” “Yes. But not now.” “What’s the reason for it?” “Because it’s agency policy.” “But why is it agency policy?” “Because the courts are closed.” My next step was to go to the agency’s facility in the Long Island City section of Queens, where most of the hearings are held. There I met assistant chief administrative law judge Joe Eckstein. Eckstein concurred with Fromberg that actually seeing a hearing was out of the question. But he did invite me to interview him or any of the drivers’ lawyers waiting for their cases to be called. I was doing that when Eckstein reappeared an hour later. This time he had his boss with him, TLC executive director of adjudications Joseph McKay. New hour, new rule: McKay said the waiting area was, like the hearing rooms, off-limits to people like me “not conducting business before the commission.” “But I do have business. I’m talking to these drivers.” “Look, unless you’re a lawyer, you’re really not supposed to be here,” McCay said. So I told him I was a lawyer, and I said that, short of being arrested, I was staying. When I arrived home that night, I learned from the office of the dean of the journalism school that Fromberg had called not once, but several times, to complain about me, charging me with a variety of offenses. I told the dean that in my view, as a journalist and as a lawyer, I had done nothing wrong and much right. I also said that the TLC’s policy regarding the courts was probably illegal. The TLC, as I would learn, conducts more than 80,000 hearings against taxi drivers annually. More than 95 percent of the cases are based on charges by TLC inspectors or the NYPD taxi squad, and are decided by administrative law judges working for the agency on a per diem basis. Until 1995 the hearings had been open. But during the Giuliani administration the hearings had been closed — without, as it turns out, any statutory or regulatory action. On my next visit to Rector Street, I tried to interview lawyers outside the hearing rooms. This time, Fromberg and TLC chief of staff David Hind not only barred me from the courts, but had security bar me from the waiting area. When I asked for the names of the judges — the names of the judges! — Fromberg told me to file a Freedom of Information Act request. I filed an action in New York State Supreme Court (the state’s trial court) seeking an order requiring that the TLC hearings be open to the public. I relied on New York common law relating directly to administrative tribunals. The agency’s defense was, in essence, that allowing the public access would impede its swift administration of justice. Two weeks after papers were submitted, Justice Stanley Parness ruled that the agency had shown no reason why it should be exempt from the state’s “strong public policy” that administrative trials must be open. But even after the judge ruled, the TLC continued to bar the public and press on the ground that the court’s decision was “not final” and that they “might appeal.” Finally, a month later, armed with a judgment implementing the earlier decision, I got in. Indeed, kangaroos were jumping all over the place. Just how high is a story for another day. Dan Ackman is a lawyer, journalist, and screenwriter who recently graduated from the Columbia School of Journalism.

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