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For grandstanding, more litigation, elect D.C.'s attorney general

I cast an early ballot in Washington, D.C., last evening, preparing to become one of the many undervotes on every race. There are candidates for U.S. Representative? When did the states ratify that constitutional amendment? (DC Voter Guide)

Should have done my homework. On the ballot is a charter amendment to make the district's attorney general's office, now filled by mayoral appointment, an elected position. (Proposed Charter Amendment IV) The City Council voted 12-1 in February to put the measure on the ballot; if approved, voters would elect the AG beginning in 2014.

I reasoned out my no vote this way:

As a matter of practical politics, this is a terrible idea. The District of Columbia is a one-party state district, in which the winner of the Democratic primary will be a shoo-in for AG. Two kinds of candidates seem likely to succeed: a populist promising to bring down business and redistribute wealth, or a glib practitioner of cynical politics with access to trial lawyer contributions. Or a combination of both.

An elected attorney general with access to the national media could pursue an agenda independent of the council or mayor, ginning up lawsuits and grandstanding for maximum political impact. The current, appointed AG, Peter Fitzgerald Nickles, is relatively restrained when it comes to litigation. Imagine an attorney general who decides to make the already bogus-lawsuit-friendly Consumer Protection Procedures Act a cause celebre, inviting the public to use to law to extract justice.

What progress the District has made in the economy and education has come through reform-minded, business-friendly Democratic mayors, Anthony Williams and to a lesser extent the current Adrian Fenty. To succeed, these kinds of mayors need both authority and accountability, both which would be undermined by an elective AG's separate power base.

Attorney General Nickles wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post, "Why I oppose an elected attorney general." His three arguments:

1. An elected attorney general will be a politician -- not the city's top lawyer.

2. An elected attorney will cost the city millions. The change would force the city to effectively to double up on its lawyers.

3. The right balance of policy and law. When it comes to policy, the mayor should call the shots.

He makes a good case, as does the Post in its editorial opposing the amendment. The Post also reminds us that the measure was the outgrowth of the city council's feud with Mayor Fenty, not some good-government impulse.

Voters are likely to approve the charter amendment, but the change will also require an affirmative vote by Congress -- a tough goal to accomplish.



Rafael Mangual
Project Manager,
Legal Policy

Manhattan Institute


Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.