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Modernize state laws

State senators consider legislation on May 8 at

State senators consider legislation on May 8 at the Capitol in Albany. Credit: AP / Tim Roske

When the laws on the books conflict with the better angels of modern society, they must be changed.

The State Legislature has the chance to update the law in two such areas before the session ends next week.

The first involves the so-called “gay panic” legal defense. In cases across the country, some of those accused of killing LGBTQ individuals have tried to bolster defenses and reduce sentences by blaming their violent acts on a reaction to the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

Did the victim blow a kiss the defendant’s way? Was the defendant just surprised to learn that the victim was transgender? This is now a legitimate justification in court.

The American Bar Association in 2013 called for these defenses to be legislated away. Getting rid of them won’t leave those accused of crimes defenseless. And even if these defenses aren’t frequently successful, they are embarrassing.

The second area where the legislature must right a wrong involves sexual harassment. Currently, the New York Human Rights Law has been interpreted using a “severe or pervasive” standard for sexual harassment claims. Crude acts like unwanted touching in private areas that occur occasionally are just as revolting as ones that happen all the time. They should be actionable.

That much is clear in the wake of astonishing testimony during a February Albany hearing from women who described acts of harassment by government officials.

New York City has a more generous standard: someone treated less well due to gender and subjected to more than “petty slights or trivial inconveniences.”

Frivolous complaints shouldn’t be encouraged but requiring sexual harassment to be “severe or pervasive” in order to win a claim is wrong.

Times have changed. The law must, too.

— The editorial board