Are the District's medical records on the death of J. Edgar Hoover available to historians? Must tough consumer groups obtain licenses as private detective agencies? Can Humanists, Scientologists and Universal Life ministers perform marriages in the District? And what do you do if you can't decide whether a gun is a handgun or a machine gun?
Most of all, where do you go for answers to questions like that?
District and federal officials usually go to District Corporation Counsel John R. Risher Jr., the city's top legal officer. His opinion, as long as it is not obviously contradicted by a statute, is the next best thing to a court decision.
Because of their importance, Risher recently had his first full year of opinions published. The 529-page blue paperbound volume presents an interesting look at the technical legal problems that preplex local officials.
The opinions range from dry analyses of proposed City Council bills to important interpretations of the allocation of political power in the District. Risher, an appointee of Mayor Walter Washington, takes the mayor's side on a number of Council-mayor conflicts.
But the opinions also touch on the many instances when a statute or a regulation just isn't enough. A lawyer must take an actual problem, probably never contemplated when the law was drafted, and make some sense out of both the law and the problem.
Certainly no drafter of a law had the venerable J. Edgar Hoover in mind, for instance, when he drew up the District's law allowing all those with a "legitimate interest" to obtain copies of the medical examiner's records.
But author Ladislas Farago requested the city's records on Hoover's death under the law, and chief medical examiner James L. Luke shunted the question to Risher's office. Luke's policy had been to give records only to the decedent's next of kin.
Risher said the law did not require the Hoover records to be released to a historian. "An historian or author seeking such information would have to obtain such from the next of kin of the deceased, who, in my view, is the appropriate one to authorize the release of information of such a private nature," he wrote.
Few of Risher's opinions involve such unsual questions. They often concern such minor matters as whether the Citizen's Advisory Committee to Reduce Litter can make itself a public corporation, and whether District employees who are Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners can be excused from work to attend ANC meetings. (No in both cases.)
Most opinions are important, though, to the District government and its constitutents.
Even one of the most esoteric opinions - a 26-page dissertation on the difference between a City Council resolution and act - is significant as a key to the allocation of power between the Council and the mayor. A Council resolution, not subject to a mayoral veto, has limited authority in Risher's opinion.
Here are a few examples of the questions Risher considered in the year ending last March and covered in the recently published volume:
Must consumer groups obtain licenses as private detective agencies?
No , Risher said, because the groups do not look for criminal behavior or seek to enforce criminal statutes as their main work.
Can Humanists, Scientologists and Universal Life ministers marry citizens in the District?
Yes for Scientologists and Universal Life ministers, because courts have recognized their religious status. No for members of the American Humanist Association, because they did not show their organization "to provide more than merely counseling of its followers."
What should the Board of Appeals and Review do when the police chief claims a gun is a machine gun but its owner says it is handgun?
Hear the case , Risher said, noting that "a material question of fact exists."
Does the District gun control law prohibit the National Rifle Association's annual firearm exhibition at the Washington Hilton?
Not at all , Risher told the hotel's manager. Firearms can be used by non-residents for "any lawful recreational firearm-related activity in the District," and the exhibition meets those critera, he said.
What kind of a city license is required for owners of a partly mechanical peep show?
It depends , Risher said, approving regulations the department of economic development had been using. Self-contained machines require a mechanical amusement machine license; and devices that have an aperture through which live performances are observed require a public hall license.
Can the Department of Human Resources establish a policy of offering homeless individuals money to leave the District because of the city's limited welfare resources?
No , Risher dryly told former DHR director Joseph Yeldell, saying, "The proposed payment of return fares does not, in my view, come within the definition of general public assistance."
Can the City Council shorten the work week for District employees?
No , Risher said, citing a federal statute that requires a 40-hour work week until the District draws up its own completely new personnel system.
Can the Council prohibit District officials from gathering information on citizens - primarily wiretapping and electronic surveillance?
No , Risher said, explaining that the home rule charter put the relevant section of the criminal code beyond the Council's power.
Can the Council provide free parking for Council members and wipe out their past parking debts?
No way , Rishner declared. The Council can't pass such a law on its own as a resolution, and the courts might object if past parking debts were relieved for council members but not others, he said in a strongly worded opinion.
Can a District employee be suspended for talking to the press?
No , Risher told three department directors, correctly anticipating a court decision against the city in a case by an employee who was disciplined for speaking out.
Can Safeway employees see a movie during their Sunday morning Christmas party?
Yes , Risher said, because it is not a "public exhibition" covered by the law prohibiting commercial movie showings before 1 p.m. on Sundays.
Can the council require that a certain percentage of District contracts be given to minority business enterprises?
No , Risher rules, saying such a quota would be "obnoxious to the constitutional prohibitions against discrimination on the grounds of race and ethnic origin." Washington accepted Risher's advice and vetoed the council-passed bill.
Assistant Corporation Counsel James McKay, who handled the publication of the opinions, said Risher plans to publish his opinions quarterly in the D.C. Register as well as the annual volume.
The idea, McKay said, is to make the opinions of general interest available in much the same way that opinions of state attorneys general the U.S. attorney general are available. Opinions of attorneys general are often relied upon as an important, though not binding, source of law.
Judge Harold Leventhal of the local U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals cited the corporation counsel's opinion in a 1972 case, saying that the corporation counsel's opinions "are entitled to weight as construction of the District of Columbia Code unless plainly unreasonable" or contrary to legislative intent.
So far there's no evidence that "Opinions of the Corporation Counsel" will make the legal best seller list, even at the relatively inexpensive price of $10 a volume. But for those who care about J. Edgar Hoovers death records and peep show licenses, it's the last word.