A Critical Vote on D.C. Democracy

On Tuesday, the D.C. Council faces a critical final vote to determine when D.C. residents will elect their Attorney General for the first time, and whether that elected Attorney General will have the tools necessary to serve the public interest.

Back in July, the Council made a last-minute decision to delay the election from 2014 to 2018, and to transfer significant authority from the new elected Attorney General to the Mayor.

Fortunately, there appears to be growing sentiment among Councilmembers that the election should take place next year. That’s partly because the Council has no authority to delay the election to 2018 unilaterally, and partly because the delay would override the overwhelming 2010 vote of DC residents to have the election in 2014.

This means the big issue before the Council next Tuesday will be whether to go forward with stripping the newly elected Attorney General of important powers, as the current Attorney General is proposing.

We’ve said all along that this proposal to transfer the hundreds of lawyers who advise District agencies from the Attorney General to the Mayor is ill-advised. The District just spent more than a decade improving and coordinating its legal services by consolidating agency lawyers within the Office of the Attorney General.

This consolidation allows the Attorney General to make sure all agencies are given sound, consistent legal advice and that he or she will be prepared to defend those agencies if they are sued. It makes no sense to undo this coordinated system that works well for the city and represents the best practice among the 43 states that elect their Attorney General.

Moreover, gutting the Attorney General’s authority is wholly inconsistent with the purpose of the referendum that was passed by the voters–having an elected Attorney General who is independent of the Mayor and accountable to the public. Moving all agency counsel away from the Attorney General to the Mayor–so that the Mayor will be sure to hear the legal advice he wants to hear–completely subverts this purpose.

Finally, even if this proposed wholesale reduction in the authority of the newly elected Attorney General were a sound one, we think the Council has not been given sufficient time to consider it. The time to have debated this proposal was 2010, 2011, or 2012–not now, on the eve of the 2014 election, when the debate is discouraging the best candidates from running, and when the Council has not been able to give the proposal the careful consideration it deserves.

We hope the Council does the right thing on Tuesday and puts the first election of D.C.’s Attorney General back on track and leaves for another day the idea of downsizing the authority of that important office.

– Walter Smith

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