Jerome L. Wilson, a former Democratic state senator from Manhattan who helped liberalize a rigorous 18th-century law that had left New York as the sole state that required a spouse to prove adultery as the only legal ground for divorce, died on Friday in Essex, Conn. He was 88.
The cause was complications of pneumonia, his daughter Sarah said.
Mr. Wilson was the chairman of the state’s Joint Legislative Committee on Matrimonial Law, which recommended that the legal grounds for divorce be broadened.
The amended act, which took effect on Sept. 1, 1967, added four other grounds for divorce: cruel treatment, abandonment for two years, the sentencing of a spouse to prison for five years or more and a couple’s living voluntarily apart for at least two years.
As a sop to the Roman Catholic Church, which does not recognize divorce and which for decades had resisted attempts to broaden the legal justification for dissolving marriages, the Legislature also instituted a compulsory conciliation procedure in a last-ditch effort to preserve marriages. (Of nearly 20,000 cases that came to the mediation bureaus in their first year, fewer than 3 percent of the couples were reconciled.)
“Senator Wilson not only introduced the commission bill but vigorously fought for its passage,” Howard Hilton Spellman, the chairman of the special committee on matrimonial law of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York wrote in The New York Times in 1965. “He refused to be discouraged by delaying tactics and so strongly persevered in fighting for our aims that, to a great extent, the ultimate result should be credited to him.”
After it was approved by both houses of the Legislature — it had drawn sponsors from both parties — the act was immediately signed by Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, whose own divorce in Nevada in 1962 and remarriage the following year had scandalized Republican primary voters and contributed to his defeat for the 1964 presidential nomination.
In the second year after the law went into effect, the number of divorces granted in New York ballooned to 18,000 in all five categories, compared with 4,000 granted only for adultery during the last year that the old law was in effect.
Supporters of the changes said the new law also reduced instances of perjury (because so many estranged spouses had to lie about allegations of adultery) and end runs by wealthier couples who could afford to fly to Mexico or Nevada and remain there for two weeks to qualify for a divorce.
Jerome Linwood Wilson was born on July 16, 1931, in Washington, D.C., to William Jerome Wilson, a medievalist with the Library of Congress, and Hazel (Hutchins) Wilson, a children’s book author.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Colgate University, served in the Air Force and worked for the National Urban League.
After three terms as a Reform Democrat representing Manhattan’s East Side in the State Senate, he challenged the Republican incumbent congressman from the district, Theodore R. Kupferman, but was defeated.
Afterward he became an on-air news correspondent for WCBS-TV in New York and later the station’s political editor.
Mr. Wilson earned a law degree from New York University School of Law and in 1973 joined the law firm of Rogers & Wells, where he practiced until 1999. He was also counsel to what is now the New York News Publishers Association.
Mr. Wilson’s first marriage, in 1957 to Frances Roberts, ended in divorce. He married Ursula Anna (Thron) Wilson in 1986, and they had lived in Essex since 1999. She survives him, as do four daughters from his first marriage, Janet, Sarah, Marion and Ella Wilson; two stepsons, Christian and Dirk Johnson; six grandchildren; and four step-grandchildren.
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