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Herman gets to keep single-letter license plate

By Patrick Healy
New York Times

Some things in life are truly worth fighting for. For a Long Island car salesman named Herman Goldsmith, it was the eighth letter of the alphabet.

Goldsmith has for nearly 20 years held onto a single-letter vanity license plate, making him one of a tiny number of New Yorkers to have that right. He acquired "H" - for Herman - in 1986.

Most recently, it was affixed to a 1936 Cadillac he drives only on weekends.

But in May 2002, the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles informed Goldsmith that his "H" was history and "should be returned to the public domain," according to court papers.

Frailer men might have accepted the decision, but Mr. Goldsmith had the means and the will. So he went to court.

"They took on the wrong guy," said Goldsmith's lawyer, Arnold Schickler.

Goldsmith, who owns a luxury-car dealership in Hewlett, on the South Shore, said his lawsuit was about principles, not plates. He paid about $35 per year for the plate and said only he should be able to decide when to give it up.

But there was more. Goldsmith said he talked to employees at the Motor Vehicles Department and came to suspect his "H" plate was destined not for "the public domain" but for the bumper of a wealthy, well-connected politician.

A department spokesman said he was not familiar with the case and would not comment on it.

After nearly two years, a decision vindicating Goldsmith was handed down on Monday. The department's attempt to take back the plate "was a violation of lawful procedure and an error of law," Judge Peter B. Skelos of State Supreme Court in Nassau County wrote.

Goldsmith got the rights to his "H," and all it cost him was a few years and 200 billable legal hours. Neither he nor his lawyer would discuss the exact fees – "I don't even want to know," Mr. Goldsmith said – but two Manhattan lawyers said the going rate for a good New York lawyer averaged $300 to $400 an hour.

Still, Goldsmith cannot take his "H" out for a spin. The plate, long expired, is sitting in a drawer and must now be renewed. Mr. Goldsmith said he was waiting to hear from the department.

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