Federal judge reaffirms Congress’ authority over D.C.

Rejects ‘budget autonomy’ for the city

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A federal judge who previously suggested the court might be “powerless” to grant the District budget autonomy on Monday ruled just that.

U.S. District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan shot down the city’s efforts to claim the right to budget autonomy through both a voter referendum and adopted legislation — a ruling the D.C. Council plans to appeal.

Judge Sullivan noted that as a native Washingtonian, he was moved by the argument that the city should have the right to spend its own local funds, but he noted the District did not have the legal justification to grant the authority to itself.

“Both Congress and the President have expressed their support for budget autonomy for the District, but have failed to act to achieve that goal,” Judge Sullivan wrote. “Congress has plenary authority over the District, and it is the only entity that can provide budget autonomy.”

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 Mayor Vincent C. 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.

Mr. Gray said he was “not surprised” by the ruling and called his court victory “bittersweet.”

“As I have said all along, we need to gain the freedom to spend our own money legally,” he said.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who championed the lawsuit, said he plans to appeal the ruling.

“I continue to believe there is strong justification for the law that we passed — which received overwhelming approval by voters in a 2013 referendum and has not been challenged by Congress,” he said.

The city’s attorney general, Irvin B. Nathan, defended the mayor in court, arguing that implementation of the act would throw the city into chaos by exposing the city to legal challenges on a variety of fronts.

Mr. Nathan said Monday he was “pleased that the budget process will be back on track in the Council and that Judge Sullivan agreed with us that the Home Rule Act and Anti-Deficiency Act do not permit the Council to take budget authority from Congress and the President.”

City officials, supportive of gaining budget autonomy, have lobbied federal lawmakers in recent years to get legislation passed through Congress that would unchain the city’s budget process from that of Congress.

“The court’s decision will not deter the Council from continuing to push for budget autonomy through other avenues,” Mr. Mendelson said.

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