The District took another halting step toward statehood earlier this week when D.C. Del. Walter E. Fauntroy held the third in a series of hearings on the subject. The forum clarified several legal points, but, as has been the case throughout the history of the city's progress toward full self-determination, a number of questions remained unanswered.
The largest, of course, is whether "New Columbia" is a politically palatable notion in the Congress. The constitutional scholars and private attorneys who testified before the House District committee's subcommittee on fiscal affairs and health largely sidestepped that question, however, and addressed the more technical issues in the path to statehood.
Fauntroy charged the witnesses with answering several key questions:What are the steps Congress must take to pass a statehood bill for the nonfederal part of the District of Columbia? Does the federal government or would the new state have any obligation to the state of Maryland, which ceded the land to create the District of Columbia? Can the Congress impose limitations on the District as a condition for admission as a state? Can the Congress rewrite the proposed constitution submitted by the District?
The question of whether Maryland should play any role in the creation of New Columbia prompted disagreement among the experts who testified. J. Otis Cochran, a professor of law at the University of Tennessee College of Law and an unabashed supporter of statehood, said legal precedents indicate that the District can proceed unrestrained by the preferences of Maryland.
"While some may suggest that the more prudent course would be to seek the consent of Maryland, one could argue that when Maryland ceded land to the federal government without limitations it relinquished all rights over that land," he said.
But the notion that Maryland gave up all claims to the land -- and hence that the federal government should be free to dispose of it freely to create a new state -- was challenged by Stephen A. Saltzburg, a constitutional scholar at the University of Virginia.
Saltzburg asserted that when Maryland ceded the land (Virginia ceded some, too, but took it back in 1848), nobody envisioned the possibility that the land would be used for anything other than the national capital district. Hence, he argued, Maryland might legitimately stake a claim to some control over the disposition of the land if its purpose were to be altered.
"Maryland gave the land for some specific purpose," he said. "I believe Maryland ought not to lose its voice."
Politically speaking, statehood promoters would be wise to entertain the views of the neighboring state, Saltzburg said. "I would want to know what the position of the state of Maryland is."
Saltzburg confessed a certain ambivalence about statehood, describing himself as a former supporter of the Voting Rights Amendment, which would have given the District full congressional representation but which was not ratified by enough state legislatures across the country. Saltzburg conceded that the voting rights legislation may have been deficient in that it accorded full representation, yet withheld key powers of self-determination -- budget approval and judicial appointments, to name two. Such a formula, he said, appeared to be out of balance.
Currently, the move toward statehood is led by Fauntroy, who introduced a bill last year calling for the admission of the District as the 51st state.
The bill, which he has not brought to a vote in the committee, followed by nearly three years the controversial convention that drafted a state constitution viewed by many as politically unacceptable to Congress.
The question of what Congress might do to shape a politically acceptable constitution commanded much of the testimony at the hearing this week.
All the experts agreed that Congress has the power to rewrite a state constitution.
"The decision to admit is a political decision," said Peter Raven-Hansen, a law professor at the George Washington University National Law Center. "Accordingly, Congress can impose any conditions it sees fit to impose."
The catch, according to Raven-Hansen and others, is that once New Columbia becomes a state it would be free to change its constitution any way it likes -- within the framework of the U.S. Constitution, of course. Congress' power to dictate to a would-be state ends with statehood.
For example, a condition of Oklahoma's admission to the Union was that the state capital could not be moved before 1913. After Oklahoma won statehood, however, state leaders promptly moved the capital from Guthrie to Oklahoma City in 1910.
Generally, the discussion of legal requirements for statehood revealed an abiding vagueness about the process. The question, "What steps lead to statehood?" resulted in a host of answers. Congress may use a number of legal vehicles to create a state; and states may be crafted from many kinds of clay: out of a larger state (West Virginia, for example), territories (Oklahoma), lands, an independent republic (Texas) and, according to some, a district set aside as the nation's capital.