D.C.’s Attorney General is Acting Against the Public Interest

You may have seen in the Post today that the D.C. Council is filing a lawsuit against the Mayor and the Chief Financial Officer for their refusal to enforce the Local Budget Autonomy Charter Amendment. As the Post rightly observed in an editorial today, this refusal–on the advice of Attorney General Irv Nathan–has left the Council with no choice but to sue so that “the District [can] have the ability enjoyed by every other local jurisdiction to spend its locally raised tax dollars.”

The Council has been backed into this situation by the Attorney General’s relentless effort to block the Charter Amendment at every step, no matter what anyone else thinks, no matter the damage to the public interest, and no matter that in refusing enforcement, the Mayor and the CFO will be defying a Charter Amendment that has completed congressional review and is now binding law.

The Council, with the legal support of both its own General Counsel and of some leading D.C. law firms, and with supportive testimony from then-CFO Natwar Gandhi, unanimously passed the law over Mr. Nathan’s objection. The Mayor then signed it over his objection. The Board of Elections then placed it on the referendum ballot over his objection. The people, at the Mayor’s urging, then ratified the Charter Amendment by 83% in the referendum. And this occurred even though the Attorney General advised the Mayor that the referendum would never take place because a lawsuit would be brought to stop it.

Congress then declined to exercise its prerogative to overturn the measure, making it a validly enacted law under the process Congress itself laid out. And since then, Congress has taken no action to overturn it or retaliate against the District–as the Attorney General predicted would happen–with Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton committed to defending it on the Hill.

Mr. Nathan’s opposing views have thus been rejected at every step of the process. So it’s no wonder he proclaimed he was “gratified” when the Government Accountability Office agreed with him in a nonbinding opinion rendered at the request of a Member of the House Majority.

It is a sad commentary when the District’s own Attorney General, with a sworn duty to defend the interest of District residents, pronounces himself “gratified” that a congressional agency would weigh in against a law giving budget autonomy to the District of Columbia.

By creating this regrettable division in the city and forcing a lawsuit between the Council and the Mayor, Mr. Nathan has deeply misconstrued his statutory responsibility “for upholding the public interest.” As I said in my letter in the Post on Monday, it’s not in the public interest, or consistent with elementary civics, for the executive branch to refuse to enforce a duly enacted law. That’s even truer when the law in question gives the District the right to spend its money without affirmative congressional action–an injustice city officials and residents have long sought to remedy.

It’s difficult to comprehend why the Attorney General would urge a court to strike down a measure that the voters overwhelmingly ratified, that is now binding law, and that is so clearly in the public interest. He might somehow regard that as a personal victory, but if the Attorney General manages to “win” this lawsuit that he has precipitated, the people of the District will be the losers.

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