- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 20, 2002

D.C. residents will be asked to decide next month whether they want to elect a district attorney to prosecute felony cases expanding home rule or retain the system of using the U.S. attorney.
The D.C. Council unanimously agreed to the idea of a city prosecutor and passed a resolution July 2 to put the question on the general election ballot Nov. 5.
"Electing a prosecutor to enforce our laws represents an enormous expansion of home rule power," said council member David A. Catania, at-large Republican, who introduced the measure.
Regardless of the outcome of the referendum, the U.S. attorney's position is likely to be retained for some time, he said.
"What we want to do is, over time, make a methodical and thoughtful transition to local prosecution of our felonies, and we shouldn't put an artificial timetable on the process," Mr. Catania said.
The city's home rule charter as adopted in 1974 allows the District to elect a mayor and council to administer and create laws but does not provide for an elected local prosecutor to enforce the laws.
Two former U.S. attorneys for the District say there are a host of financial and structural issues for D.C. residents to consider if they elect to move forward with the home rule initiative.
A District Attorney's Office would cost the city at least $60 million the price tag for the U.S. Attorney's Office, said Eric Holder, a former U.S. attorney for the District and deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration. That would be a tough financial pill for the city to swallow.
"The city most likely would have to take back the responsibility of paying for its courts, constructing a prison within its borders and developing its own marshals service, which makes the measure virtually impossible," said Joseph di Genova, also a former U.S. attorney for the District.
"If this is a home rule issue, you can't say you want your own prosecutor and then say you don't want to pay for the whole thing," Mr. di Genova said.
He said the system works fine the way it is.
Mr. di Genova supports the idea of putting the question to the voters but said the costs of running a prison, marshals, the courts and the District Attorney's Office would be like "adding several school systems to the city's budget." The city is allocating $743 million for the schools in fiscal 2003.
Mr. Holder said the city would have to take back the cost of the courts but disagreed with Mr. di Genova that the District would have to build a prison.
"I don't think you absolutely need to physically have the prison in the city. That is something the city can work out with Congress," said Mr. Holder, who supports the referendum.
Mr. Holder, a D.C. resident, said he was torn between the "appealing" aspect of expanding home rule and the reality that "the city can't afford to pay for it right now."
"You can't make a statement for home rule that could put what the [U.S. attorneys] office does at risk. And unless the District Attorney's Office is ready to handle the load from day one, the prosecutorial system is placed in jeopardy, as is the safety of the city," he said.
Aside from the myriad issues of managing an elected district attorney, there is the matter of whether the 535 members of Congress would honor the will of the D.C. voters something they haven't been inclined to do in recent years.
In 1992, Sen. Richard C. Shelby, Alabama Democrat, persuaded Congress to order the District to put a death penalty referendum on the ballot, despite a city law prohibiting use of the death penalty. Mr. Shelby later switched to the Republican Party.
In 1998, Rep. Bob Barr, Georgia Republican, imposed a bill to prevent the city from counting the ballots on a referendum for the legal use of marijuana for medical purposes, despite approval by 69 percent of D.C. voters.
After a U.S. District Court judge ruled that the congressional mandate was an unconstitutional abridgement of free speech, Mr. Barr introduced an amendment prohibiting the city from spending any money on the initiative and has reinstalled the amendment every year since.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times is switching its third-party commenting system from Disqus to Spot.IM. You will need to either create an account with Spot.im or if you wish to use your Disqus account look under the Conversation for the link "Have a Disqus Account?". Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide