Easing fears they voiced earlier, officials of the D.C. City Council said yesterday that a study of last week's court decision restricting the council's emergency law-making power shows that its ability to deal with urgent city problems will remain intact.
The D.C. Court of Appeals, in a 5-to-3 decision, upheld a lower court's ruling that the council cannot invoke the same emergency situation more than once to justify repeated passage of temporary 90-day legislation without allowing it to be reviewed by Congress. A congressional review of permanent legislation that usually takes upward of six weeks is required by the Home Rule Charter.
On the day of the decision, Council Chairman Arrington Dixon expressed concern that it might make the council powerless to legislate during long congressional adjournment periods.
But Dixon and Lawrence H. Mirel, the council's chief lawyer, said yesterday that a close reading of the 59-page court opinion revealed a loophole -- contained in a footnote -- that clears the way for repassage of emergency legislation in such cases.
Often when the council enacts permanent legislation and sends it to Congress, it decides also to put that measure's provisions into effect immediately by invoking its emergency power to pass identical provisions.
But if Congress is not in session and the emergency bill is due to expire at the end of 90 days, the footnote suggested, that situation itself "may create a different emergency permitting a second, consecutive emergency act."
Under the D.C. Charter, Congress has 30 legislative days in which to decide whether to veto council measures or let them become law. Since there are rarely more than five legislative days in a week, and usually fewer, the procedure usually takes at least six weeks and sometimes stretches out for months.
While insisting that the council has not abused its emergency powers, Dixon said he expects most future emergencies will be invoked only when permanent legislation has been enacted or is close to passage by the council.
Speaking after an informal closed caucus of council members, Dixon said council lawyers will continue to study whether to seek a U.S. Supreme Court review or, more likely, to ask the Court of Appeals for a rehearing.
Mirel said 13 emergency laws currently are in effect, and the council must decide in coming weeks whether and how to renew them. Most deal with internal city administrative matters, but they also include restrictions on interest that can be charged on automobile purchase loans and a stop-gap ban on the future conversion of rental apartment units into hotel-type accommodations.
The council also is scheduled today to vote preliminary approval of a permanent bill providing for city licensure of private colleges and universities. That measure is slated to replace emergency legislation that has been enacted 10 times since 1977 and which now is scheduled to expire July 22 -- perhaps requiring an 11th emergency declaration.