Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Go Mendo! Time for an Elected AG?

I've expressed frustration in the past with the tendency of our elected officials to introduce symbolic and PR-focused legislation purportedly supporting voting rights for District residents (coins, postage stamps, postmarks, statuary hall, ballpark signs, etc.) rather than move on substantive legislative that can move us closer to full home rule. Yesterday's Examiner reported on one of those rare substantive efforts - Councilmember Mendelson's introduction of legislation that would make the District's Attorney General an elected official.

An attorney general is a state's chief legal officer. He or she is charged with a wide range of important functions, including advising government agencies on how to comply with the law, defending the state in civil litigation, and suing on behalf of the state when it is wronged. In the states, attorneys general general share criminal prosecutorial power with district or county attorneys elected at a more local level, and handle appeals. In 43 of the 50 states, the attorney general is elected. In the remainder, the Governor appoints the attorney general with the exception of Tennessee, which is unique in having its Supreme Court appoint the highest legal officer.

The Mendelson bill, introduced on January 9 and referred to the Council's Public Safety and Judiciary Committee (chaired by Mendelson), has so far gained the co-sponsorship of Councilmembers Catania and the Browns Squared. It would provide for election of the attorney general, on a partisan basis, for a 4-year term beginning in 2010. Election of the AG would coincide with that of the Mayor. Congresswoman Nortan has pledged to move the change to the District's Home Rule act through Congress if passed by the Council.

Only a few years ago, the name of the position was changed from Corporate Counsel to Attorney General, a somewhat symbolic gesture to put the position on par with that of the states. The Mendelson bill is meant to continue the move forward. Currently, DC's AG, unlike other state AGs and district attorneys, shares prosecutorial power with the United States Attorneys office (the federal Department of Justice), which handles all major crimes, leaving DC's AG and the District's prosecutors to deal with relatively minor offenses. The Mendelson bill does not change that allocation of responsibilities... yet. That change must make it through Congress, and, while Norton has introduced federal legislation in the past, it has gone nowhere. In 2007, it didn't get the support of a single consponsor. It didn't move in 2006 or 2003 either.

An elected AG for the DC would provide more independence from the Mayor and greater responsiveness and accountability to the people. It might create momentum in the Congress for providing us lowly residents of the District with the power to enforce our own laws rather than rely on federal prosecutors who report to the the U.S. AG to do so. It would also add some needed democracy to the District, which has so few elected officials with real power for its 600,000 residents beyond a 13-member council and the mayor.

In moving forward, the Council does need to be aware of pitfalls. Elected attorney generals rely on campaign contributions to get and stay in their posts. That has the potential for favoritism, uneven enforcement when a contributor is involved, or cronyism in the award of lucrative contracts to private attorneys to assist the District in litigation. Strong transparency and conflict of interest laws are needed to safeguard the integrity of the position.

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