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Budget Autonomy Backers Celebrate D.C. Appeals Court Ruling on Attorney General Case

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The legal architect of the District’s local budget autonomy law celebrated an order handed down by D.C.’s highest court Wednesday.  

DC Appleseed Executive Director Walter Smith declared a District of Columbia Court of Appeals ruling in support of holding an attorney general election in 2014 an “exciting” development for Washingtonians — and a good sign for how the court might rule on pending budget autonomy litigation.  

The legal fight to put the attorney general on the November ballot in accordance with a 2010 voter referendum and the court battle over the validity of a 2013 amendment to the District’s budget process are “similar in some ways because both were [examples] where the people themselves used their authority under the Home Rule Act to advance democracy,” Smith said. In July, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit will be briefed on an appeal to the budget autonomy case. Smith and his allies hope the court will support the new law, and rule promptly so it can be applied to the budget that the D.C. Council will begin preparing this fall. (The District of Columbia Court of Appeals is roughly the equivalent of a state supreme court for the District. The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit is the federal appellate court for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.)  

District voters had their will “vindicated” on Wednesday, Smith said, adding that he believes charter amendments are one of the “few tools available” to advance democracy in the city.  

In the order issued Wednesday, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals said the attorney general election must be held in 2014 “unless it would not be practically possible” for the Board of Elections and Ethics to do so under the law.  

The judges reversed previous court orders and ruled that the D.C. Council violated the District of Columbia charter by attempting to delay the election to 2018 after Washingtonians approved a 2010 charter amendment to make the office an elected, rather than appointed, position after Jan. 1, 2014.  

Whether District voters will choose the city’s first elected attorney general in November — or as soon as practically possible — remains to be seen.  

D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan, who has been defending the law to delay the election, said in a statement that his office is studying the order and indicated he intends to continue fighting for the election to be held in 2018, in accordance with the council’s law.  

“We continue to believe that the Council of the District of Columbia had the authority to interpret the 2010 Charter Amendment to authorize a statute scheduling the Attorney General election to be in 2018, and we will be drafting a petition to the full en banc court of the D.C. Court of Appeals on that key point,” Nathan said.  

“We will also be working with the Board of Elections and the Council to develop  a full explanation of the practical and legal issues associated with rushing to hold the Attorney General election in 2014, which we will present in any further Superior Court proceedings following the Court of Appeals’ final decision,” he added.  

Attorney general hopeful Paul Zukerberg, who brought the issue to court, called the five-page order “perfect” and told CQ Roll Call he is confident that five months is enough time to get the election on the Nov. 4 ballot under federal and local law. He believes the court was “mindful” of the relevant deadlines when it issued the order only six days after attorneys argued the case .  

“We issue this order now because time is of the essence,” the court stated Wednesday, promising a published opinion would follow.  

Meanwhile, the council is moving forward with a major restructuring of the office that would take place on Oct. 1, 2018.  

DC Vote also took the appeals court order as a positive sign and commended the judges for recognizing the power of the electorate under the charter.  

“Electing an Attorney General — like 43 states do — is clearly a step forward in the District’s effort to operate like a state,” said Kimberly Perry, executive director of the organization, in a statement. “The people of the District live under an unjust federal political system, so we are encouraged that the court has weighed in on the side of the people in a matter so important to the advancement of democracy.”