By JILL TERRERI
Gannett News Service
ROCHESTER -- A state appeals court Tuesday heard arguments on whether the state's open meetings laws were violated during negotiations last year to legalize same-sex marriage in New York.
A conservative group opposed to same-sex marriage sued the state Senate over the bill's passage last June, saying that meetings behind closed doors with lawmakers and elected leaders broke the law.
Members of the Senate Republican conference, for example, met behind closed doors with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The group claims the gatherings violated the open meetings law.
However, the discussions of a political caucus, such as the majority conference of the Senate, are exempt from the law.
Oral arguments from New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms and the state Senate were heard in the Fourth Department of the Appellate Division, based in Rochester.
The question the judges appeared most interested in is whether the law's political caucus provision that allows for "guests" to be present covers Cuomo and Bloomberg, who are not registered Republicans like the rest of the Senate majority. Cuomo and Bloomberg are also not members of the Senate, which could be a key factor in the decision.
The law allowing gay marriage was passed last year with the support of four Republican senators.
The judges noted that members of a Democratic administration hold private meetings with the Republican majority Senate caucus for the purposes of budget briefings. They questioned why a governor would be held to a different standard.
Those on both sides of the bench acknowledged that there is little precedent on the meaning of the word "guest."
There was no date as to when the court would rule.
The Senate has argued that no vote could be orchestrated, because Bloomberg and Cuomo couldn't vote in the Senate, and the vast majority of Republican senators voted against the bill.
The measure passed 33-29 and made New York the largest state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage.
A lawyer for the state said that the group which brought the suit is unhappy it lost the larger battle to prohibit same-sex marriages in New York,.
"There is no basis to wipe out the statute and all the marriages performed under it," said Victor Paladino, a lawyer for Senate Republicans.
Rena Lindevaldsen, representing New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, which is based in Spencerport, Monroe County, said the transparency of the political process is at stake.
The group was successful in a lower court in November, when State Supreme Court Justice Robert Wiggins in Livingston County ruled that the suit could proceed.
The state Senate appealed the ruling, which brought the parties to court Tuesday.