Justice Lawyers' Opinion Fails to Deter Backers of D.C. Vote Bill

Supporters of statehood for the District listen to speakers at a rally on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol.
Supporters of statehood for the District listen to speakers at a rally on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol. (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
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By Mary Beth Sheridan and Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 2, 2009

Proponents of the D.C. vote bill said yesterday that they were not discouraged by an opinion by some key Justice Department lawyers that the measure was unconstitutional and believed it would not cripple efforts to get the legislation passed.

They were responding to a disclosure in The Washington Post that the department's Office of Legal Counsel had concluded this year that the legislation was unconstitutional. After learning of that, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. sought a second opinion from the solicitor general's office, where a lawyer said the bill could be defended if it became law and faced a court challenge, The Post reported.

The measure is expected to go to the House floor this spring, the office of Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said yesterday.

"This bill unfortunately has gone through the perils of Pauline, and this is the latest peril," said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), one of the bill's co-sponsors. "But at the end of the day, as you know, Pauline gets saved."

The legislation, which has cleared the Senate, would give the predominantly Democratic District its first voting seat in the House of Representatives. A seat also would be added that would temporarily go to Republican-leaning Utah.

Some D.C. officials reached yesterday said they were unperturbed about the wrangle in the Justice Department.

"It sounds to me like we have the support of the attorney general. As long as our citizens have the support of the person in charge, I think it's great news," said Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D).

Other officials, including Hoyer, suggested that Holder was simply being cautious. The attorney general "exercised prudence in seeking broad counsel on a question for which there are competing legal arguments," he said.

But what Holder did was more unusual, according to legal experts. The Office of Legal Counsel is an elite unit that gives legal and constitutional advice to the executive branch.

Holder, a D.C. resident, and President Obama (D) back the effort to give the District a vote in Congress. The bill has been opposed by most Republicans.

A spokesman for House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said the legislation was "clearly unconstitutional."

"We certainly hope that the news that the attorney general had to put partisan pressure on Department of Justice lawyers to ignore that fact will give supporters of the bill a moment of pause," said the spokesman, Michael Steel.

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