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Q & A With George S. LaRoche

Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2000, noon EDT

George S. LaRoche was the lead lawyer in Adams v. Clinton (also called D.C. Citizens v. Clinton), a case that tried to secure voting representation in Congress for District residents. The Adams case and Alexander v. Daley both suffered setbacks Monday when the Supreme Court declined to review them, affirming lower court rulings that denied such congressional representation. (Read the story.)

For more information about the lawsuit, visit the D.C. Citizens v. Clinton Web site. Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


washingtonpost.com: Thanks for joining us today, George. To start, can you tell us a little about Adams v. Clinton, and what it wanted to accomplish?

George S. LaRoche: Adams was filed to ask the Court to restrain Congress from treating the residents of the District differently than it treats all other people who live or have lived where Congress has or has had identical powers under the Constitution, as Congress wields over the District. In short, the case seeks to vindicate District residents' rights to equal treatment under the Constitution.


w, dc 20001: What was the legal basis for the Appeals Court's decision? How about for the Supremes' decision not to have argument?

George S. LaRoche: The Three-judge District Court gave no reasons for dismissing the claims in Adams. They gave extensive reasons for dismissing the claims in another case consolidated with Adams (Alexander v. Daley), but those reasons don't go against Adams, since Adams was based on different theories and arguments. We don't know why the Court didn't address our arguments. The Supreme Court's decision means only that they didn't want to take the case, since the only thing they could "affirm" was dismissal of the claims.


Washington, DC: Mr. LaRoche,
Taxation without representation seems to me to be far more anti-American than any of the official reasons why District residents have been repeatedly denied a voice. What is really happening? What is the motive of people who would prefer to keep us silent?

George S. LaRoche: The majority of members of Congress are just too busy to deal with it. They're here to do what their constituents sent them to do -- bring home the bacon to Illinois, California, Texas, etc. And when they look at the District, they're laden with a set of myths which make it difficult to convince them that the situation does not have to continue.


Washington, DC: Addressing the rationale behind the decision to deny voting rights to DC residents--that since DC is not a "State" they do not merit representation--how applicable is this to granting tax-exempt status? According to Article XVI: "The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration."

If DC is not a "State," how can Congress rationalize collection of Federal income taxes from its residents?

George S. LaRoche: None of the places which we compare the District to in Adams was a State or part of a State at specific times in the nation's history. Congress changed that for all those places, so now the people who live there enjoy all rights of State and Federal citizenship. Congress could do the same for the District.


Cleveland Park: This seems like such a small issue to people outside DC. Do you think the new license plates will help?

George S. LaRoche: To a degree, since so few people know about the District's status. But the plate needs to be explained, so someone who sees it on I-10 in Louisiana won't know a whole lot more than they don't know now, unless they can stop the driver and ask for more information. But it will help shift the "paradigm," so to speak.


WDC 20037: How is it that DC residents pay the same taxes, register for selective service, and fulfill all the other citizen obligations that other Americans fulfill, yet we get no voting rights in an entity that controls our very city? And I don't understand how DC residents are forced to do this, yet citizens of US territories are not but are in the same no-voting position. It seems to me that DC gets the worst of all worlds, its citizens are treated as second-class, yet the rest of the country wonders why the city has so many problems.

George S. LaRoche: You're correct. The situation continues because Congress has the power to keep it going and, as I may have just said to another reader, the vast majority of members of Congress (not to mention everyone else) is just too busy with other matters to attend to this. Animus accounts for a bit of the problem, but inertia accounts for most of it.


Washington, DC: Now that we have failed in the courts, what are the possibilities left to us colonials to finally get voting rights? Where should we be focusing our energy?

George S. LaRoche: Well, of course the political realm is and always has been wide open. But you must have a clear sense of what CAN be done and what needs to be done to make a significant difference. I counsel against setting out to accomplish half-measures and half-steps. Demand the whole pie and be prepared to live with what you get until you get more through the political process. But the legal foray are not exhausted, by any means. A significant portion of Adams v. Clinton is still before the D.C. Circuit, and we may make some headway there.


WDC: Do you think the legal battle in Puerto Rico over the right to vote for President will have an affect on the DC voting issue?

George S. LaRoche: It will actually hurt us. Let me clarify first, however, that residents of D.C. and Puerto Rico have common cause against Congress; we should be partners. But the court decision which said residents of P.R. can vote for president runs counter to the plain terms of the Constitution, and even if it would have been upheld all the way to the Supreme Court, would have resulted in second-class citizenship, albeit citizenship with a vote for President. Never settle for second-class opportunities, no matter how much of an improvement over third-class status.


Washington, DC: What could the logic possibly be to force a group of so called citizens, 519,000 of them, to be subjected to federal laws and federal income tax like all other Americans, but not have any congressional representation?

George S. LaRoche: Fifty years ago, those numbers (according to the best estimates available) were not 519,000, but on the order of at least five MILLION. That was the number of people denied representation in Congress (not to mention State government), in addition to those in the District. Guess what, those folks are now citizens of the States, courtesy of Congress. Congress could do the same for the residents of the District -- make you citizens of a State, in every sense and for every purpose.


Burke, VA: Wouldn't Congress have to pass, and the states ratify, a constitutional amendment to give DC voting rights?

George S. LaRoche: No. Congress could do it by simple majority vote either by retroceding the District to Maryland or by admitting the District as a State. But until and unless the District is a state or part of a State, then most scholars agree that the only way would be by amendment of the Constitution. It should be noted as well that most political observers would add that such an amendment would give LESS "representation" to the citizens of the District than you have as a citizen of Virginia.


DC: Can you clarify your answer about the Puerto Rico case? I don't quite follow why it would hurt the DC case.

George S. LaRoche: The legal theory was that, without being a State, P.R. could participate in election of the President. This runs counter to the terms of the Constitution and, if it had not been overturned by the 1st Circuit, would have resulted in necessarily inferior "participation" in election of the President. So the case, if it succeeded, would tend to subduct the District into a similar, inferior position. You deserve no less a status than anyone in Virginia, Maryland, or Iowa, when it comes to exercise of your rights. I'd add that many people in P.R. agree with this analysis.


Washington DC: What process is involved with being declared "a territory?" At least if DC were like Guam, there'd be no Federal income tax. Once that was accomplished, perhaps statehood would not be as difficult to achieve.

George S. LaRoche: The term "territory" would make no difference. The only terms which matter are those in the Constitution which place the entity at issue in a certain status. Therefore, the term which matters is "State." To illustrate, Congress pass a bill to tax the people of Guam tonight. Period, done deal. They don't pay tax only because Congress chooses not to tax them.


Downtown: Correct me if I'm wrong, but Adams wants DC to be a state, right? How would that work? Would we have a governor and a mayor, or just one government? What would change if DC was a state, aside from getting votes in Congress?

George S. LaRoche: Adams didn't ask for statehood. It asked for an order (in essence) that the status quo had to stop. Period. Afterwards, the District could move forward to a settled status.
The District would have whatever form of government it wanted if it was a State, or could adopt a common form (which is probably wiser), or it would have the forms common to Maryland if retroceded to Maryland. But the MAIN benefit you would see would be no more congressional interference in local matters. Congress cannot interfere with most of how Virginia runs itself; neither could it if the District were a state or part of a state.


Washington DC: If we were denied because we are not literally a STATE, than what is the rationale for COMMONWEALTHs such as Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Virginia having representation? They are not literally STATES are they?

George S. LaRoche: Good point, but very early on in our history, the courts concluded that the term "commonwealth" had no special meaning under American constitutional law, so was interchangeable with "State." Note that Mass. & Va. were "commonwealths" when they each ratified the Constitution, which refers to "states" in the Article dealing with ratification, so this sort of disposed of the distinction.


SteveDC: How about putting language in an upcoming omnibus bill making dc a state before congress goes into recess??

George S. LaRoche: Great idea.


Washington DC: You said, "Never settle for second-class opportunities, no matter how much of an improvement over third-class status."

It seems to me one of the problems with DC's situation is that incremental change has been out of the question. It's statehood or nothing, and we've STILL got nothing. Don't you think a route involving exemption from Federal taxes and military service would be a better means of ultimately getting full representation?

George S. LaRoche: Yes, any improvement is good, and we should not fight AGAINST any improvement (the best should not be the enemy of the good). But we should not set out to win only a step. When I go hiking, I set out to reach a certain spot. I might have to camp in several places before I can walk that far, but eventually I reach the place I tried to reach. In D.C., too many times, increments have been substituted for real goals. And the antagonism between statehood and retrocession is not so fierce, in reality. Supporters of both have common cause, whether they like it or not, at this time and until the status quo is at an end.


Washington, DC: Is there anyone in Congress who actually does care about the lack of voting rights by District residents?

George S. LaRoche: Delegate Norton, of course, and Representative Gurierrez from Chicago, for one. He's a strong supporter of our rights, and sends his hopes that D.C. will link arms with Puerto Rico to fight the antiquated colonial system which besets both places.


Bethesda: The Supremes didn't take the case on an 8-1 vote. But, do you have any hunch as to what a different court would do? That is, hypothetically, IF Gore wins in November and IF he gets to appoint 2 or 3 justices relatively quickly, could it have an impact?

George S. LaRoche: I don't rest my hopes on more liberal or different justices. They are human, like all of us, and won't attend to this until they have no choice. After all, they labor behind the same mesh of myths and assumptions as the conservatives, even if their myths and assumptions are more palatable to many of us.


DC: What do Bush and Gore have to say (if anything) about the status of DC?

George S. LaRoche: I believe it boils down to:

Bush: no change and no representation and certain no statehood.

Gore: representation, but I've not heard anything which leads me to think he'd support statehood or even retrocession.


Laurel MD: How about pushing to join Maryland? That would give D.C. residents full representation in a way that would get Republican support. As long as D.C. officials fail to push for this reasonable solution, they and the D.C. voters that put them there have no one to blame but themselves for their lack of representation.

George S. LaRoche: That would work. Funny thing is, but for a single Supreme Court decision almost two centuries ago, the District might have always been part of Maryland, though subject to heightened congressional power. But unification with Maryland (retrocession) is a real possibility and would eliminate all the constitutional problems in one fell swoop.


Wash DC: Legalese aside, speaking only for myself as a resident of the District, all I want is EITHER to have representation OR be exempt from federal income tax. A gross oversimplification of the issue, sure, but really, in my book that's the bottom line.

The reluctance of the Congress to remedy this situation, after all these years, is shameful.

George S. LaRoche: Fair enough, but bear in mind that representation without sovereignty means that Congress would still decide how the money is spent and could as easily eliminate the "home rule" government and put the District back under three commissioners, even with "representation" in congress.


Bethesda, MD (DC resident, though): The "elephant in the room" that nobody wants to address is that DC voters are overwhelmingly Democratic. The Republicans in Congress surely have strong political reasons for keeping us from full representation in the House and Senate. How much of a role do you think partisanship plays in this debate?

George S. LaRoche: Senator Kennedy predicted many years ago that D.C. won't get statehood because it's "too liberal, too urban, too democratic, and too black." Let's hope he's wrong.


Mt. Pleasant: How come we don't get much help from celebrities, NAACP and the like with our cause? PETA seems to have lots of support.

George S. LaRoche: Good question, but remember that independence from Great Britain didn't come under the leadership or support of what passed for "celebrities" at the time, and emancipation of slaves was not too hot among "celebrities" either. Celebrities adopted the civil rights movement once it was rolling. But some celebrity support would certainly be welcome.


Washington DC: Does the district have a right to a militia? Would you consider the formation of such a body to be a small step in the right direction?

George S. LaRoche: It doesn't have the "right," if you mean as a matter of constitutional law, but it had one for decades after Congress assumed full sovereignty and it might help to have one. Note that it does have a "National Guard" division, just as each State, and the NG is a sort of successor to the militias.


VA: What law actually prevented Mrs. Norton from voting in Congress? And what laws allow D.C. citizens to vote in the presidential election? And how much is the taxpayers paying to D.C.? $500 million per year?

George S. LaRoche: Congress REPEALED a law which had GRANTED her the right to vote in "the committee of the whole" only when her vote didn't change the outcome of an issue.
D.C. participates in election of the President through Amendment 23 to the Constitution.
I don't have the tax figures at my fingertips - sorry.


Yesberger, DC: Rather then creating another State for the District of Columbia and all the requirements that go with Statehood, would you consider working with Maryland to simply add us to their state creating in effect another county?

George S. LaRoche: There are people doing this already. It's a time-tested position.


Boston: Back when I lived in DC (you could still find an apartment in 1994), I think the District income tax rate bothered me even more than the Federal tax issue.

I'm not saying it would be a good idea to turn the District into a domestic tax haven, but has anybody tried challenging federal tax of District residents on constitutional grounds? If not, then why not?

George S. LaRoche: It was tried in the 19th century in a case called Loughborough v. Blake, and the Supremes shot it down. Ever since, the law has been unshakable: there is no claim under the Constitution for "taxation without representation." But legal claims are not the only way to make "cases." The taxation issue, however, is easy to discuss, not to mention popular, but when it comes time to do something, you'd be surprised how quickly everyone backs away from being the one to not pay taxes or even add a written protest. So to do something through the "taxation" issue, you would have to put yourself on the line, big time.


MA: Any plans to start dumping tea (or Mocha Latte) into the Potomac? It worked up here . . . or so they tell me.

George S. LaRoche: Do it!


Arlington, VA: What can the citizens of DC and adjoining states do to get DC statehood?

George S. LaRoche: A: ACT like a state.

B: petition for statehood.

C: protest like hell until it's granted.


The Hill: I agree with the previous comment about Republican's being against a Democratic City, but what about when the Democrats were in control? What did they do for DC?

George S. LaRoche: Very little, and what they did do is now held up against the District as "proof" it's locked into subservience.


Washington, DC: What do you think of the DC Statehood Green Party ticket. Do you agree with their platform?

George S. LaRoche: I support it, strongly.


Montclair, VA: It seems like the main reason DC does not get true home rule/representation/statehood is Congress' perception that the District is run by black Democrats, while Congress is run by white Republicans.

Republicans want to do an end run against established law and build a Reagan monument in addition to the Reagan Building and Reagan National Airport. Democrats won't let them do it.

Why not just cut a deal? Make the entire District a monument to Reagan by establishing the state of Reagan. There is precedent for this in the Pacific Northwest. DC will get representation and Republicans will get their monument. They could even have a flag and state seal with Ronnie's bust on it. Seems to me to be a small price to pay.

George S. LaRoche: Very interesting idea, but Congress could do all that now, so there's no "bargaining strength" on the District's side. Remember that the actual limit for now is Congress' power, and that power is unlimited. The recent Court action insulates that power from constitutional challenge for at least a while longer.


dc: One of the reasons congress gave for relinquishing power from the District is that the current government was filled with corruption and waste. I don't think Congress liked Marion Barry too much at all. Do you think Barry helped or hurt the fight for DC statehood?

George S. LaRoche: Congress "forgot" that for a hundred years before Marion Barry, the District was run by what many people thought was a very government: the commissioners. So you could say that Barry was just picking up where the commissioners left off. And Congress is no slouch when it comes to pork-barreling and inside dealing. They get off the hook however since they print the money to bail themselves out.


Washington, DC: The most vocal opponents to DC retrocession are Maryland residents, for exactly those "myths and assumptions" you mentioned. But wouldn't DC being a part of Maryland generate a substantial tax windfall (property, commerce, and tourism) for Annapolis?

George S. LaRoche: You are quite right, on both counts. I've learned over the last several years, however, that most people in Maryland are not such implacable opponents to retrocession as it seems on first impression. If it were a real alternative, I think many would be willing to join in and work it out.


Chevy Chase, MD: No offense, but have all the problems with Public Works, the Motor Vehicle Department and Public Schools really shown that the District is ready to handle Congressional representation?

George S. LaRoche: So you believe the residents of Chicago, New York City, Miami, Orange County (California), and a slew of other places should be disenfranchised as well? No, rights to participate in government are given to everyone else by virtue of their citizenship. Why should the residents of the District have to "earn" theirs, especially when you cannot - as a matter of history - isolate anything now happening from a pattern of congressional actions which could have resulted in the inefficiencies you identify?


Washington DC: I just moved to DC and filed for my voter registration card. Is there really any reason for me to choose a presidential candidate? Is the only power of my choice manifested as a statistic on the TV?

George S. LaRoche: Your vote for President IS counted, but it "weighs less" than the vote of someone who lives in a state. But it does matter. On the other hand, you might want to read Mark Plotkin's editorial in today's Post and consider how that vote should be used.


washingtonpost.com: Mark Plotkin's editorial can be found here


Fairfax, VA: Besides the vote, what other powers does DC government obtain? Would this impact the significant government presence within the District?

George S. LaRoche: I'm not sure I understand your question, but I assume you mean "if the district were a state or part of a state." If so, then D.C.'s government would have the same degree of autonomy to make local governmental decisions enjoyed by all other state or local governments (depending on whether the District were a state or part of Maryland). It would have little or no impact on the "federal presence" physically, but it would eliminate the "federal presence" in the council chambers. The district's government would no longer be any more accountable to Congress than is the government of Chicago or the State of Illinois (again, depending on whether the District were a state or part of a state).


WDC: I've heard a lot of talk about taxation without representation, for which I heartily agree. However, what about, say in cases of impeachment. No DC resident even had a forum in which to voice their opinion on the impeachment of the president. My point is that it isn't merely taxation without representation, it is a deeper issue, and VERY important to us.

George S. LaRoche: You're exactly right. This issue goes far deeper than taxation, which is only the easiest issue to discuss (not to mention popular, for money is something we each can identify with). remember that this country came into being NOT because of "taxation without representation." It came into being for "independence" from the sovereignty of an oppressive government. Independence means self-government. Self-government in the United States means the dual, federal system now enjoyed everywhere EXCEPT in the District of Columbia, which is in the same legal position vis a vie Congress as Massachusetts Bay Colony was vis a vie the King of England.


Arlington, VA: Could you further your answer of "ACT like a state." What does that mean?

George S. LaRoche: The District is defined as a state for the purpose of several hundred different provisions of the United States Code. So Congress seems willing to admit that it can certainly act like a State. So Congress (perhaps unwittingly and certainly without planning) has laid out opportunities. TAKE them. If the District ACTS like a State, in the fullest possible manner, it will be very hard for Congress to continue to say it "cannot BE" a state.


Woodley Park: DC residents all seem to understand and appreciate this issue, but what do you suggest we do to assist in the process of securing full representation in Congress? Aside from supporting measures and trying to educate those outside of DC do you have any recommendations on what residents can do to change public sentiment on this issue outside DC and more importantly in Congress? (Great chat btw)

George S. LaRoche: Keep lobbying, keep discussing, join organizations so you speak with a louder voice, and support the best solution you can embrace.


washingtonpost.com: George, thanks for taking the time to join us today. Any final thoughts?

George S. LaRoche: Thank you for this exciting discussion. Remember, there are still portions of the case Adams v. Clinton before the Court, and you'll hear about it as time goes by. You can also read almost every document ever filed at the Web site, www.dccitizensfordemocracy.org. Knowledge, as they say, is power.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

 

 
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