When Karl A. Racine says his transition from a top-flight white-collar defense lawyer to the city’s first elected attorney general has been “humbling,” he’s not talking just about the historical distinction.
“The January paycheck may have a couple missing zeros, but that’s okay,” said Racine, 52, formerly managing partner of the Venable law firm.
On Friday, he’ll trade in his expense account and high-triple-digit billable hours for a lifestyle “far more akin to that of a regular public servant,” he says. And although his new client may offer its counsel less in the way of remuneration, the legal challenges will remain robust.
Duties of the city’s attorney general — previously a mayor-appointed, council-confirmed office — range from defending the city against lawsuits to protecting consumer interests to enforcing child-support orders. The attorney general also prosecutes juvenile crime cases and adult misdemeanors.
As the first person elected to the post, Racine will assume a place in the top echelon of D.C. political power, alongside the mayor-elect, Muriel E. Bowser (D), and D.C. council members, whose initiatives he may review and be called on to defend in court.
Racine will have an opportunity to make an immediate splash: His office must review the implications of the closely watched marijuana legalization measure that D.C. voters approved overwhelmingly on Nov. 4 but that has since been subject to a congressional attempt to overturn it.
In an interview, Racine made clear that he would seek to uphold the ballot initiative, saying that the language included in the recent federal spending bill may block future attempts to loosen marijuana controls but not the Nov. 4 vote. His stance comports with the interpretation put forward by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) and other D.C. and Democratic officials.
“We think Initiative 71 was basically self-enacted, just as the congresswoman does,” Racine said. “And we think there’s good support for that position, and we’re going to support that position.”
The potential of a court standoff with Capitol Hill is only one of the flash points Racine could face early in his term. He said that in his first 100 days, he expects to approach the D.C. Council with a legislative package aimed at enhancing the powers of his office. He said he will seek broader subpoena power — something that has proved controversial in the past but that Racine believes is crucial to making sure the elected attorney general is independent of, and able to act as a watchdog over, other elected city officials.
“We have it in limited ways under limited statutes, but we would be much better able to fulfill our responsibilities if we had full subpoena power,” he said.
Other requests, he said, could include greater financial independence from the mayor and a larger staff — particularly in the realm of consumer protection, where Racine now has a half-dozen lawyers.
Kenyan R. McDuffie (D), the D.C. Council member expected to take over as Judiciary Committee chairman in January, said he had not discussed possible legislation with Racine.
Another potential minefield is the area of juvenile justice, where the attorney general’s office serves as the District’s lead prosecutor. The U.S. Justice Department will continue to prosecute most adult crimes.
Racine reiterated campaign-trail vows to change the juvenile-justice system “in a way that focuses more on rehabilitation and restoration as opposed to mere incarceration.”
“The first thing is to keep the city safe,” he said. “But there is no doubt that I will personally get involved in a very active way in regards to taking the criminal justice system . . . into a zone where we’re really focused on opportunities to get kids out of the system.”
He said he will work to curtail the use of shackles on incarcerated juveniles in D.C. Superior Court — a change that youth advocates have pushed for but that the court’s chief judge, Lee F. Satterfield, has called a security risk.
Racine said he is “mindful” of Satterfield’s position but hopes for a compromise. “I’m looking forward to working with him and the other stakeholders, to making sure that the security of the courthouse remains even as we move the ball down the road with respect to minimizing the use of those heavier restraints in court,” he said.
Racine’s transition has been a crash course in the nitty-gritty of District government. He has tapped two lawyers with deep experience with District government — Pauline A. Schneider and Natalie O. Ludaway — to advise him. And he has convened “working groups” on various issues — including public outreach.
Patty Mullahy Fugere, executive director of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, is among a small group of community advocates who have met with Racine in recent weeks. Fugere’s group recently won a lawsuit against the city over legal standards for housing homeless families, and she said she was encouraged by Racine’s comments to the group.
“He seemed to make it pretty clear that he was interested in upholding the law of the District of Columbia and not just defending the conduct of the District government,” she said. “That’s the big question mark for all of us: What are you going to do when it seems pretty clear to us that the government has gone astray?”
Racine said he expects to personally litigate some cases — something previous attorneys general have done with mixed success.
U.S. District Court judges rejected Peter J. Nickles’s attempts to close out several long-running class-action lawsuits against city agencies. But successor Irvin B. Nathan recently argued successfully in the same court against the validity of a charter amendment granting the city more budgetary freedom from Congress.
“They’ll see the attorney general in court, they’ll see the attorney general before the council and they’ll see the attorney general out in the community, pushing for those initiatives that the community cares about most,” Racine said.
District residents may also see Racine on the fundraising trail: He said he will try to retire some of his campaign’s $260,000 in outstanding debt, most of which is owed to Racine himself.
Racine said he’s comfortable with having pumped so much of his own savings into the race, along with tens of thousands from his former law partners. He said the money was “necessary in order for me to prevail” over four challengers.
“I feel that putting your skin in the game means that we can take a position on law without any regard to other interests,” he said. “I doubt that we retire all of it. . . . I think it’s important to keep that skin in the game.”
In any case, Racine will probably be in less of a position to self-finance should he seek re-election in 2018. As attorney general, he will be paid $190,000 — the same as the D.C. Council chairman and $10,000 less than the mayor.
Racine might be in a better position to absorb a pay cut than many white-shoe attorneys: He is single and has no children. Still, lavish gifts and long vacations are out. “I will live a relatively modest life and certainly will be budgeting accordingly,” he said.