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From the Publisher's Desk...

ELECTING, NOT APPOINTING, OUR ATTORNEY GENERAL

Mt. Pleasant resident and ANC commissioner Jack McKay, in a recent posting to the twice-weekly TheMail e-group posited, “Whether the DC Attorney General is nominated by the Mayor or chosen by popular election, he’s at least answerable to the District. What’s more important is that this officer [at present] is limited to the prosecution of only minor crimes — e.g., disorderly conduct — whereas the prosecution of all serious crimes is in the hands of a presidential appointee, the US Attorney for the District of Columbia.”

Then McKay questioned whether this matters and reflected on why it might: “I guess I never paid much attention until a matter of a guy firing seven bullets one night into the window of a neighbor’s occupied bedroom, an act of extraordinary violence in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood. Identified by the occupant, the man was arrested a day later and was to be charged, according to the Metropolitan Police, with ‘robbery and assault with a dangerous weapon.’ Well, guess again; the US Attorney’s Office . . . saw fit to charge the man with a mere ‘misdemeanor theft.'”

Continuing, he wrote, “Stunned by these trivial charges for a crime of exceptional violence, I pursued the matter, only to find that the [U.S. Attorney] plainly works for the Justice Department, and the White House, and is in no way answerable to the people of the District of Columbia or their elected representatives. Our complaints about their decisions in this violent incident were dismissed with unconcealed contempt. They weren’t willing to take this crime seriously, apparently because they disdained the character of the victim, and that was that.”

In conclusion, McKay shared these thoughts: “Evidently the creators of Home Rule considered the District incapable of managing its own criminal prosecutions, and so substituted this Federal office for a homegrown District Attorney, such as every other jurisdiction in the country has. No doubt our own DA would be imperfect as well, but at least he would be answerable to us, the people of the District of Columbia. Delegate Norton has introduced, for the fourth time, a bill in Congress that would allow us to have our own DA. Given the state of Congress, it’s now or never for this effort to succeed.”

We have long advocated for an elected District Attorney (we think the title of Attorney General for a city is patently presumptuous). We have listened to the argument that it’s risky to select the chief law enforcement officer by popular vote since we could end up with an incompetent. Well, that’s always a risk, but it’s not a given by a long shot. Think New York City and some of the truly great DA’s, like the legendary Frank Hogan and the just recently retired Robert Morgenthau; they were elected (and re-elected) by popular vote. Why would we not be able to attract such stellar legal talent and have the good sense to elect such persons into a position of this importance? Is it possible that only a mayor has sufficient smarts (or integrity) to put the public good over political interest and expediency? We think not.

Of course, simply getting Congress to amend the Home Rule Act to allow us to elect our own chief law enforcement officer, whether called DA or AG, will not be of much benefit unless Congress provides that the chief law enforcement officer have total control over the District’s law enforcement — and that means completely removing the U.S. Attorney from having jurisdiction to prosecute (or decide not to prosecute) District of Columbia felonies pursuant to District of Columbia criminal law. (Naturally, as is the case everywhere, federal crimes would still be the responsibility of the U.S. Attorney.) We applaud the on-going — and now renewed — effort by our Congressional Delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, to achieve this outcome. While we believe there is a good chance of passage in the House, we despair that it can make it through the Senate, even with the Democrats retaining their majority. But try she must.

We do recognize, also, that many city residents have been expressing support for the idea of electing the Attorney General rather than leaving the power of appointment with the Mayor because they detest the present AG. He’s viewed as arrogant and appears to serve as the Mayor’s personal legal counsel — which, of course, is not what he is supposed to be. Further, his obvious disdain of the City Council, his often odd legal advisory opinions, like the one stating that the illegal contracts awarded to the Mayor’s frat buddies and running partners in blatant contravention of the law was indeed legal do raise questions about his judgement. And, he surely didn’t endear himself to large numbers of city residents when he said of Ward 3 Councilmember May M. Cheh “She’s an angry woman” when, questioning the legality of the Mayor reappointing Ximena Hartsock as director of the parks and recreation department even though the Council refused to confirm the appointment, she observed, “It’s almost becoming a lawless administration. They seem to have no limits or restraint on what they are willing to do.”

We acknowledge that our appointed Attorney General is a first-class lawyer and has a brilliant intellect, but we can say the same for Councilmember Cheh, who happens to be a distinguished law professor can rightfully claim an intellect of no less quality than the AG. However, his grating personality and obnoxious behavior should not be the reason for us pressing for the needed reform in how select the city’s chief law enforcement office or for us to be granted full authority to enforce our own criminal laws and prosecute our own felons pursuant to those laws.