WHILE VULTURES appeared on K Street, chickens were coming home to roost with the D.C. Council this week when an appeals court ruled that the council acted illegally in delaying an election for attorney general. It was not a surprising outcome, given the serial carelessness with which the council has treated this office. D.C. residents should not have to pay the price for the council’s foolishness; efforts must be made to ensure an orderly election.
A three-member panel of the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday that council members did not have the authority to overrule a charter amendment, overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2010, that provided for the first election of the attorney general in 2014. The position has been a mayoral appointee. The council pushed to make it an elected office in a fit of pique with former attorney general Peter J. Nickles, but buyer’s remorse kicked in last year, and council members voted 7 to 6 to postpone the election.
The council argued that the language of the charter amendment, calling for an election “after Jan. 1, 2014,” meant any time after that date — so why not 2018? The appeals court laughed that one out of court and ordered an election this year unless election officials can show that’s not practical, in which case the election must be held as soon as possible in 2015. The panel sent the matter back to D.C. Superior Court.
We did not favor the 2010 switch to an elected attorney general, but the voters gave their approval. Now an appeals panel has unanimously said their will should prevail. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan has said the city will appeal. Instead, officials should turn their attention to actually holding an election. Given the District’s ability to stage special elections when an office unexpectedly becomes vacant — D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson’s (D) election in November 2012 after the June resignation of Kwame Brown (D) comes to mind — it is not unreasonable to think the office can be put on the November ballot.
Some tweaking of the law will be needed. Government lawyers can’t run for the office because they would run afoul of the Hatch Act; that should be remedied to encourage the best possible field of candidates. We make that suggestion without casting any aspersions on private attorney Paul Zukerberg, the only candidate to have emerged for the office. Mr. Zukerberg certainly proved his mettle by waging a principled and sometimes lonely fight to insist on the election that council members initially favored and that voters want.
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