A federal judge ruled yesterday that Congress can no longer block the release of election results on a District initiative to legalize the medical use of marijuana.
U.S. District Judge Richard W. Roberts's ruling clears the way for D.C. voters to finally learn the outcome of a highly publicized election in November that generated a fierce legal battle involving Congress, the D.C. government, the American Civil Liberties Union and a host of initiative supporters. A congressional amendment had kept the vote from being made public in what city officials and activists contended was a flagrant attack on citizens' rights.
"Congress may have entirely understandable motives for attempting to curb drug possession, use, and distribution in the District," the judge declared in his 24-page opinion. "That does not change the fact that keeping a veil over the results of a properly conducted referendum would cut short public expression about the topic of drug legalization--either pro, con or neutral."
D.C. officials said they hoped to release the results as quickly as possible, perhaps early next week. They said they needed additional time to thoroughly review the decision and to convene a meeting of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics.
"Today's court decision is a clear and decisive win for self-government in the District of Columbia," said Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D). "At long last, the voters will be heard on this public health issue."
Arthur Spitzer, the ACLU's legal director was pleased. "All I can say is, 'Bravo for Judge Roberts,' " said Spitzer, who argued the matter before Roberts in a flurry of briefs and at a packed hearing in December.
Initiative 59 would change D.C. law to legalize the possession, use, cultivation and distribution of marijuana if recommended by a physician for serious illnesses. Under current D.C. law, possession of marijuana is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of $1,000.
The court dispute stemmed from an amendment Congress tacked onto last year's D.C. appropriations bill that prohibited the District from conducting any ballot initiative that would "legalize or otherwise reduce" penalties for users of marijuana. The measure, sponsored by Rep. Robert L. Barr Jr. (R-Ga.), was passed less than two weeks before the election.
Because ballots already were printed by the time Congress acted, the vote still took place; more than 137,000 people cast ballots. A computer automatically tallied results but didn't put out the Initiative 59 count.
That led to the lawsuit, filed by the ACLU on behalf of initiative supporters. The suit asked for a court order requiring D.C. officials to reveal the outcome and to certify the result. In an unusual twist, the D.C. government sided with the parties filing the lawsuit.
Arguing on behalf of Congress, the Justice Department contended Congress did not overstep its bounds because it has authority over all aspects of D.C. government and had a right to block a medical marijuana law either before or after the election.
Justice Department lawyers did not return telephone messages yesterday.
Roberts, a former federal prosecutor who joined the bench last year, ruled the Barr amendment did not specifically prohibit the counting, release and certification of the vote, and so those actions could move forward. But if the Barr amendment could be construed as an attempt to keep the results secret and uncertified, Roberts said the measure would infringe upon voters' rights. Congress, he said, has no right to prevent political speech, despite its "unique relationship" in the governance of the District.
Once the election results are certified, Congress has 30 days either to do nothing--and let the measure take effect, if it passed, or overturn it.
Barr and his House colleagues acted again this summer, tacking an amendment onto the fiscal 2000 D.C. appropriations bill to block the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes. The Senate passed the amendment as part of the budget package Thursday. The White House has threatened to veto the budget bill because of concerns about amendments.