Shirley Siegel

Shirley A. Siegel, a lawyer who challenged racial discrimination by construction unions, landlords and developers and became the first woman to serve as New York state’s solicitor general, died on Monday at her home in Manhattan. She was 101.

Her daughter, Ann B. Siegel, said the cause was complications of a stroke suffered a few weeks ago.

Siegel found her calling in life early, deciding at age five that she would become a lawyer before she even knew what a lawyer was. Once she started practicing law, she kept at it for more than 70 years, compiling a long list of achievements.

Siegel organized New York state’s newly created Civil Rights Bureau in 1959 under the newly elected state Attorney General Louis J. Lefkowitz (a Republican who selected her even though she was a Democrat). She served under Mayor John V. Lindsay of New York as general counsel of the Housing and Development Administration, where she helped draft the Rent Stabilization Law. And she returned to Albany in 1979 when Attorney General Robert Abrams named her solicitor general, the official responsible for rendering opinions and arguing appeals of court decisions involving the state. She remained in that post until 1982.

Siegel regarded as one of her greatest accomplishments the blow she made in the Civil Rights Bureau against discrimination by organized labor in the building trades. Until then an applicant for union membership first had to have worked as an apprentice, a position typically granted on the basis    of nepotism.

Investigations by the attorney general’s office culminated in an official complaint before the State Commission Against Discrimination, leading the US Justice Department and other agencies to begin inquiries into the practices of a number of unions.

In 1975, for example, a federal judge ordered Local 28 of the 4,000-member Sheet Metal Workers International Association to end “a history of discrimination” and admit more minority-group members into its ranks and its apprentice program.

As a state official, Siegel sought to carry out the Supreme Court’s guarantee that poor people were entitled to legal representation, and she found that insurance companies and banks had favored job applicants who were white, Christian and male — a determination that compelled them to begin opening up their hiring practices.

As a volunteer lawyer for the New York Civil Liberties Union, Siegel drafted a brief supporting Japanese Americans who, in a case before the US Supreme Court, were challenging their internment at the outbreak of World War II.

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