The case for electing the D.C. attorney general
The Nov. 2 D.C. ballot includes a referendum on whether the D.C. Home Rule Charter should be changed to make the city’s attorney general an elected position. The position is currently filled by mayoral appointment, subject to D.C. Council confirmation. Click here to read D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles make the case for sticking with the current system.
By William P. Lightfoot
D.C. residents deserve a high-quality lawyer who speaks for the public interest. Selecting an attorney general by popular vote will ensure that the person in the job has the freedom and independence to make decisions on the basis of the public good.
This is far from a new issue. In 1998, a bill to hold a referendum on electing the city’s attorney general was introduced in the D.C. Council. In 2002, 82 percent of voters approved the change, but Congress failed to act. The issue has been studied extensively, including a 2008 report by the public interest organization DC Appleseed and a 2009 report by the D.C. Council recommending making the office an elected one.
Throughout this debate, the strongest arguments have been made on the side of elections. For starters, an elected attorney general would be structurally independent of the mayor and thus generally free of the mayor’s political agenda; right now, the attorney general has an obligation to the public, but it is the mayor who makes the pick. Election would remedy this disconnect.
An elected attorney general would also increase the stability of the office by serving a longer term than appointees have historically. An elected attorney general would be more accountable to D.C. voters and thus the public interest, but he or she would also have greater political clout. An elected attorney general would create an additional power center in the D.C. government and provide greater opportunity for participation in the democratic process.
The question of cost has come up: The city’s chief financial officer has written that no additional money is needed for an elected attorney general than is currently budgeted for an appointee.
One last argument: Many competent lawyers who would ably represent the public interest are currently foreclosed from serving as attorney general because they lack political connections. Election will open the job to anyone who can mount a successful campaign. Elections promote selection by merit, not selection by the politically well connected.
The writer is a D.C. lawyer and a former member of the D.C. Council (I-At Large). He served as chairman of both of Adrian M. Fenty’s mayoral campaigns.
| October 22, 2010; 7:41 PM ET
Categories: D.C., D.C. politics, HotTopic
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