Jeff Gee wrote last week:
"That's wonderful news! I hope your FOIL extends to those people at the NYC Health Department, Vital Recordssection. They have been so difficult to deal with."
I'm happy to report that Reclaim the Records also has a different long-running lawsuit (filed in April 2019) in progress against the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and a few other related city agencies and officials. You are correct, they are truly one of the worst local or state government agencies to deal with when it comes to records access. Even just getting copies of very old death certificates from them, even for your own family members, even if you correctly submit all your documentation, is often a nightmare, not to mention slow. It's completely ridiculous.
So I thought you, and other people on this listserve, might want to read (or re-read) what's been going on with that lawsuit.
In that April 2019 lawsuit, we're asking the City for the first-ever public copies of ALL New York City death certificates for the years 1949-1968. That's about 1.6 million records altogether, and all of them would be open to the public if the deaths had occurred anywhere else in New York State outside the City limits. That's because the City and the State have different Departments of Health, with different rules about records access embargo timelines. But we're basically arguing that a City agency rule, even from an agency that has been granted an unusual amount of autonomy, cannot be more restrictive than an actual New York State law passed by the state legislature, such as the New York State Freedom of Information Law (FOIL).
The population of New York City was about 25% Jewish during these mid-twentieth-century years, and so we think the percentage of Jewish deaths among this collection is probably close to that, so that's about 400,000 records. And most death records have multiple names on them, of course: the deceased person, the spouse if they were married, the father's name (if known), the mother's name and maiden name (if known), and the informant (often a relative). So that's probably over a million names, if you index all of them. That would make this records collection, if we win it, one of the largest totally free Jewish-American historical resources in the world.
The same lawsuit is also seeking the nullification of recently-enacted NYC Department of Health records access rules, because I guess the Department decided they didn't suck enough already and so they recently made their agency's records embargo periods even worse, now up to seventy-five years for public access to death certificates, and one hundred and twenty-five years for births. Insanity!
In contrast, I live in California where uncertified copies of birth and death records are totally open to the public, no embargo. You can all go order "informational" uncertified copies of my kids' California birth certificates from 2007 and 2010, if you want. It's really not a big deal...except in New York and a few other places, which still treat public records access like it's an unforgivable sin.
Anyway. Here's the link to the page on our website, about this particular ongoing lawsuit, originally filed in April 2019:
There's a fun Jewish genealogy connection here, too: our attorney in this case is none other than Michael Moritz, who is also very involved with several research groups at JewishGen! He put an enormous amount of hard work into our "Article 78" legal filing, which you can read here (47 pages!):
And check out the four affidavits we filed along with the Petition, from four genealogists who all consistently need access to New York City death records for very different but very important reasons: (1) kinship and legal proceedings; (2) identification and repatriation of American servicemen who died overseas during twentieth century wars; (3) applications for dual citizenship or reclamation of lost ancestral citizenship; and (4) health-related research to find and alert distant family branches to a genetic risk for cancer from inherited BRCA mutations.
Those four affidavits are linked in the "Paperwork and Court Filings" section on that same page on our website. Jewish genealogist David Bushman was the author of the affidavit about BRCA mutations necessitating better public access to death records, and I am sorry to say that Dave passed away from coronavirus infection earlier this year. The case goes on, in his memory.
- Brooke Schreier Ganz
Founder and President, Reclaim The Records
Mill Valley, California