The U.S. Senate confirmed federal prosecutor Loretta Lynch as the 83rd U.S. attorney general Thursday after much yakety-yak about her qualifications and whether she is or will be inclined to become a political hack for President Obama.
Similar discussions are occurring in City Hall, where newly minted Mayor Muriel Bowser stands in opposition to Karl Racine, the District’s first elected attorney general.
Stakeholders have crossed this threshold before, when the D.C. Council wanted to hold public hearings to enact marijuana legislation after Congress prohibited the city from spending money on such efforts. It was the prudent Mr. Racine who warned the council: Act and you will be prosecuted. He saved the lawmakers’ hides by giving them the right legal interpretation of congressional lawmaking — or congressional interference, as detractors call it.
Now the council stands at a different juncture. During budget hearings this week, the Bowser administration and Mr. Racine gave different points of view on the AG’s office.
As Mr. Racine correctly articulated to lawmakers, the District joined more than 40 states when voters approved a 2010 referendum to elect an attorney general and that, like them, the city’s “AG has an obligation to act in the public interest and functions as a check and balance” and is central to “a mature democracy and [is] a further step toward the District achieving full self-governance and statehood.”
Mr. Racine articulated critical responsibilities of the attorney general, including:
• “[H]ave charge and conduct of all law business of the District and all suits instituted by and against the District government.”
• “[P]ower to control all litigation and appeals.”
• “[P]ower to intervene in legal proceedings on behalf of [the] public interest.”
If the District’s AG is not independent but instead a pawn of the mayor or the council, then the AG is nothing more than a political hack.
Miss Bowser, for her part, has something politically motivated in mind. Her budget, which the council is reviewing, calls for funding a new bureaucracy, the Mayor’s Office of Legal Counsel, which is expected to offer the mayor and agencies under her purview legal and policy advice, and supervise the general counsels in those agencies.
There is nothing wrong with the mayor seeking and/or receiving legal and policy advice from counsel. However, and this is really HOWEVER, such counsel is not independent — and not by a long shot.
Sure, the mayor’s counsel can offer his best legal opinion and it may come from the top drawer, and it’s great that the current counsel, Mark Tuohey, is considered one of the best lawyers in all of America. But Mr. Tuohey and Miss Bowser won’t always be seated in their respective positions of power. Then what?
Well, lawmakers need to cross that bridge now, during budget negotiations and before they put stakeholders in a bind.
The city’s AG should be independent — as independent as Congress and then-President Bill Clinton made the D.C. Office of the Chief Financial Officer so that no mayor, Marion Barry or otherwise, could interfere.
If there are any suspect legal shenanigans inside D.C. government or outright scams on D.C. residents, stakeholders deserve an independent AG who can take a look from 30,000 feet.
Some federal lawmakers were concerned about Ms. Lynch being myopic — that is, beholden to legal and policy views in sync with the president’s instead of the U.S. Constitution and the Federal Code.
Justice is its own branch of government.
Remember, chief executives, like the president and the mayor, swear to execute the law. They are not lawmakers in and of themselves.
Councils, on the other hand, are. That is why it is critical that D.C. lawmakers get this right.
The current AG, Mr. Racine, and his successors must not be political pawns of the mayor and the mayor’s minions, and he must not be held to confer or coordinate with the mayor’s legal counsel.
The states have it right, and now that D.C. has joined the club of the majority, D.C. lawmakers should follow its lead.
• Deborah Simmons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.