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Sidney H. Asch, 92; judge in New York, legislator, scholar

By Paul Vitello
New York Times / September 11, 2011

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Sidney H. Asch, a New York judge with a PhD in sociology who wrote scholarly works about civil liberties and made notable decisions on landlord-tenant law, employment of gay people, and a man’s right to get a haircut in a women’s beauty salon, died Sept. 1 in a nursing home in North Carolina. He was 92.

The cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease, his daughter Dr. Jane Asch said.

Mr. Asch, who wrote eight books, was modest about his academic credentials when he began his public career as a member of the state Assembly in 1952, and he seemed almost apologetic about them when interviewed a few years later, after he had won election to a Democratic Party leadership position in the Bronx.

“I had lots to overcome in politics with my academic background,’’ he told the New York Times. “But I feel I convinced the people in my district that I understand their problems.’’

Notwithstanding his effort to blend in, The Times found a scholar’s rise in city politics so unusual that it put its article about his election on the front page under the headline “Democrats Pick PhD Egghead as District Leader in the Bronx.’’

In his decade in the Assembly, Mr. Asch, who earned a doctorate from the New School for Social Research, promoted legislation to ban corporal punishment in schools and to require that cigarette packaging carry health warnings. Neither bill passed - although the objectives would later be met - before he left in 1961 to accept appointment as a New York City municipal court judge.

As a justice of the State Supreme Court in 1970 and of the court’s Appellate Division in 1982, Mr. Asch found himself at the center of politically sensitive cases with long-term implications for the city.

In 1978, weighing in on an issue that would remain contentious for years, he quashed a law passed by the City Council requiring future city employees to live within the city limits. The issue remained unresolved until the 1980s, when lawmakers adopted a law permitting most uniformed workers to live outside the city but imposing a residency requirement on most other city workers.

In 1983, Mr. Asch joined the appellate court majority in upholding the right of tenants to assign or sublease an apartment during the term of a lease.

In 1985, he wrote the majority decision upholding the authority of Mayor Edward I. Koch to ban employment discrimination against homosexuals by any private agency doing business with the city, including church-run groups. The ruling was later overturned by the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals.

But the decision that may have affected the broadest spectrum of the population - among the city’s long-haired, style-conscious men, at least - was a 1975 ruling in which Mr. Asch overturned a 1947 statute that permitted barbers to cut women’s hair but prohibited women from cutting men’s.

The challenge was brought by hairdressers, The Times wrote, so that men could “go to beauty salons openly, without fear that the joint may be raided.’’

Beginning in 1968, Mr. Asch also wrote books about civil liberties, citizens’ rights in the criminal justice system, and the legal problems of the mentally disabled, among other topics. Another volume was titled “The Supreme Court and Its Great Justices,’’ on the 15 justices he considered most influential in American history.

Sidney Howard Asch was born on May 30, 1919, son of Bernard and Mildred Asch.

Mr. Asch served as a military lawyer in the United States during World War II.

His wife, Amy Cohen Asch, a social worker, died in 2004. Besides his daughter Jane, of Manhattan, he leaves another daughter, Nancy, of Asheville, N.C.