Budget autonomy lawsuit goes to federal court


Lawyers under D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan want budget autonomy lawsuit heard in federal court, not local court. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

The District government’s internal fight over its fiscal autonomy from Congress will be first heard, if not ultimately resolved, in the federal courts.

The D.C. Council filed its lawsuit last week in D.C. Superior Court, the District’s local court of general jurisdiction, putting it on a path to be ultimately decided in the D.C. Court of Appeals, the highest local court and one with a long history of resolving inter-branch disputes and interpreting the home rule charter.

But lawyers for the District’s Office of the Attorney General last week had the suit sent across C Street NW to the federal courthouse. A status hearing has been set for Tuesday morning in front of U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan.

Why move the case, over whether last year’s local ballot referendum on budget autonomy is binding, to federal court?

Ted Gest, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said in an e-mail that “the basic reason is that the issues involved here concern the role of the President, Congress and [the presidential Office of Management and Budget] and are appropriately resolved by the federal courts.”

But the council’s lawyers plan to ask that the suit be sent back to Superior Court. Karen L. Dunn, one of the pro bono lawyers handling the case for the council, said her team plans to file papers making the request Monday afternoon. She said there is no valid “federal question” jurisdiction presented in the lawsuit, as the city’s lawyers claim. Rather, she said, the dispute concerns a “local law … concerning local expenditure of locally raised and locally kept funds.”

“When Congress created the D.C. courts, it intended for disputes like this over local law to be decided in local courts,” Dunn said. “Of course, we feel confident that we can win on the merits in either court.”

The upshot is that the jurisdictional spat could delay the resolution of the case, with a clock ticking on a late-May deadline when the old and new budgeting processes would begin to diverge.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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