A federal judge Tuesday suggested the court might be "powerless to provide a legal remedy" to those seeking to grant the D.C. government the ability to spend its locally raised tax dollars independently of Congress.
Attorneys for the D.C. Council and the mayor faced off in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Wednesday to hash out arguments on whether a recently adopted law giving the city budget autonomy from Congress has any legal standing.
Judge Emmet G. Sullivan peppered both sides with questions — including why Mayor Vincent C. Gray signed the measure into law if he didn't think it was legal — and expressed sympathy for the District's desire for budget autonomy. But he said he was still weighing the court's role in the matter.
"It may well be the court is powerless to sanction this," said Judge Sullivan, who did not issue a ruling, but indicated he hoped to do so promptly.
The D.C. Council last month filed a lawsuit against the mayor and the city's chief financial officer over their refusal to implement a voter-approved law giving the District the right to set its budget without congressional interference.
The act — which was approved by the council, and overwhelmingly passed by voters in April 2013 before Mr. Gray signed it — gives the District the authority to set its own fiscal calendar and spend its locally raised tax dollars without approval from lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
The measure survived a congressional review period, but an opinion issued in January by the Government Accountability Office said it had "no legal effect." The opinion came after a House Appropriations Committee report in July dismissed the measure as nonbinding.
Judge Sullivan compared the "compelling arguments" in favor of granting the city budget autonomy to a case brought by survivors of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. The hostages sued Iran seeking damages, but Judge Sullivan dismissed the case on the grounds that when the U.S. government brokered their release through the Algiers Accords, the deal barred former hostages from seeking reparations for their imprisonment.
"I can't rule from the heart," Judge Sullivan said.
Proponents of the law argued that when the city's Home Rule Charter was adopted in 1973 that it was set up in such a way that it could be amended and that the process had been followed in this case.
"If the Congress specifically wanted to limit something, it knew how to do so," attorney Karen Dunn said.
D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan took the unusual step of personally defending the mayor in court Wednesday, telling the judge that if he affirmed the bill "there will be chaos in the city."
Describing a series of hypothetical situations, Mr. Nathan surmised that city officials, fearing they would be arrested for breaking federal law, could sue the District on the grounds they didn't want to spend money that had not been properly appropriated by Congress. Meanwhile, anyone facing criminal prosecution, such as a drunk driver, could use the action as a defense by claiming that illegal funding was being used to pay the salary of the police officer who arrested the driver.
"Congress is the instrument that said we don't have budget autonomy," said Mr. Nathan, reasoning because of that only Congress has the proper authority to grant it.
"Time has passed, conditions have changed, but the law has not changed," Mr. Nathan said.
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