U.S. Atorney General William French Smith, in the first the first indication of the Reagan administration's stance on an extension of home rule long sought by city officials, said yesterday that he is generally opposed to a transfer of local prosecutorial authority from the U.S. Attorney's office to the District government.
Smith made the statement in a 45-minute, closed-door meeting at the Justice Department with Mayor Marion Barry and his top legal advisers, according to Tom Stewart, a Justice Department spokesman.
Smith's tentative position paints an initially dreary outlook for the city's efforts to increase control of local affairs in the criminal justice system -- one of the areas least affected by the passage of the Home Rule Charter.
Barry had gone to the meeting to discuss, among other things, proposals to give the city not only prosecutorial authority, but also the power to appoint its own judges and to take over courthouse security operations now performed by the U.S. marshal.
According to Stewart, Smith reminded Barry that at his confirmation hearings before the Senate, the attorney general said he intended to keep an open mind on the transfer issue.
"He [Smith] indicated that he still intended to keep an open mind, but that at the moment his leanings were to the contrary," Stewart said.
According to Stewart, Smith told Barry that "at the moment, there seemed to be more arguments against than for" the proposal to transfer prosecution of local crimes to a proposed new D.C. attorney general's office. He did not spell out his reasons, Stewart said.
The Justice spokesman said Barry then asked whom in the Justice Department the city should contact on the issue, and was told that Associate Attorney General Rudolph W. Giuliani would coordinate the department's evaluation of the transfer proposal.
There was no indication of Smith's current opinion on other items, including transfer to the mayor of the authority now held by the White House to appoint judges of the D.C. Superior Court and the D.C. Court of Appeals.
City officials downplayed Smith's remarks, saying that no final decision had been made, and continued their generally glowing assessment of relations thus far between the city and the Reagan administration.
"We have found receptivity," Barry said after the meeting. Alan F. Grip, Barry's spokesman, said later that the city believed "the doors are still ajar" on the issue of prosecutorial transfer.
"Whatever his leanings," Grip said of Smith, "the dialogue is going to continue. And as long as it continues, we are not going to change our position. We'll be going from a positive point of view rather than negative." p
D.C. Corporation Counsel Judith W. Rogers said, "I don't want to get into what was said" at the meeting."If the department says that's what he said, then that's what he said."
Rogers added, "It was an opening meeting, that's all. The whole point was to start the conversation. All I know is that we're going to meet and talk."
Barry has held a series of such meetings with Reagan administration cabinet members, and generally has emerged with praise for the Reagan team's willingness to listen to District concerns.
He met with Secretary of Health and Human Services Richard Schweiker last week, for example, and won a pledge from Schweiker to establish a task force to help the city restructure some of its services to help keep them from shrinking excessively due to the federal budget cuts imposed by Reagan and the newly conservative Congress.
Barry entered yesterday's meeting with a shopping list of items to discuss, including the prosecutorial and judicial transfers, the appointment of a new U.S. attorney for the District and the city's desire for an easing of restricitions that prohibit granting prisoners as much furlough time from jail as the city would like.
Stewart said Smith agreed to consider the furlough proposal, but that otherwise the discussion was dominated by the transfer issue.
Ironically, one of the major themes of Reagan's presidential campaign was the need to get the federal government out of local affairs. Smith's tentative position on the D.C. transfer issue, however, appears to take the opposite tack.