D.C.’s top lawyer disparages bid to put attorney general’s office on ballot this year.

A last-ditch effort to allow District residents to elect an attorney general this year for the first time was criticized Monday by the city’s current top attorney, who argued to the D.C. Council that its latest proposal does not comport with the city charter.

Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan said a bill that would put the city’s top legal office on the November general election ballot without its first being contested in party primaries would not constitute an election on a “partisan basis,” as required by the charter amendment passed by city voters in 2010.

“The system that would be created by the bill would not be partisan in any meaningful sense or in any way that the term has been understood in the District or by courts or legislatures elsewhere,” he told a council committee.

That interpretation vexed the council chairman, Phil Mendelson (D), who has led the effort to make the attorney general an elected official and has sought to reverse the council’s decision last year to delay the first election from 2014 until 2018.

“The bottom line here is, the council, on a nearly unanimous vote, said they wanted an elected AG. And the voters by and large said they wanted to have an elected AG,” he said. “The question is: How do we get there?”

The possibility that the office might appear on the April 1 primary ballot was foreclosed Friday, when a Superior Court judge declined to intervene on behalf of a prospective candidate who challenged the delay. But backers said they hope that the pending legislation, which would give candidates direct access to the general election ballot, will allow an elected attorney general to take office next January.

The bill was introduced by Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3); she supported delaying the initial election to 2018, a measure that passed by a one-vote margin. Should all of the members who opposed the delay support Cheh’s bill, it could pass the council. But Nathan’s opposition raises the possibility that Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) might veto it, and overriding that veto would require additional votes.

Mendelson sharply questioned Nathan during a Monday afternoon hearing, with several exchanges ending in shouts. “No, that’s not on point,” the chairman said at one juncture.

“That’s exactly on point,” Nathan sharply retorted. On another occasion, he said to Mendelson, “This is a totally ridiculous argument that you are making.”

Nathan, who was appointed by Gray, argued that passing the Cheh bill and proceeding with an election “would cast a pall of doubt on the legitimacy of our first elected attorney general” and could lead to litigation challenging the election or any actions taken by the person elected. Better, he said, for the council to wait until 2016 to hold a proper two-stage election.

Two nonprofit groups, D.C. Vote and the D.C. Appleseed Center, testified in support of the legislation, saying it would honor the popular will expressed in a 2010 charter amendment referendum.

Mendelson said after the hearing that there were “contradictions” in Nathan’s position and that Mendelson’s staff continues to research the legal issues surrounding the bill. He said he still plans to move the bill toward passage, perhaps as soon as next month.

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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