There is a saying that the “only qualification for an elected official is to get elected.” This belief seems to have taken hold in the District as the list of candidates for mayor, council and other public offices continues to expand.
On Nov. 4, District voters will have their first chance to elect an attorney general . The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that council legislation postponing this contest beyond 2014 is contrary to a voter-approved referendum adopted several years ago. Thus, a major question looms: What qualifications should an elected attorney general possess, and how should voters evaluate the worthiness of candidates? On its own, the ability to “get elected” is not enough of a qualification for this office, which protects the legal interests of the District’s citizens.
D.C. voters have no experience with the election of legal officers such as judges or district or state’s attorneys. Home rule was enacted in 1975, so our political traditions in the District are relatively new. In some election settings, bar associations will evaluate a candidate and give a public rating to his or her legal experience. In others, candidates’ past performance in well-known legal positions may be a factor. But, what about here in the District of Columbia?
First and foremost, a candidate for D.C. attorney general must have significant and demonstrated experience as a legal professional and, ideally, will have gained recognition as an accomplished attorney. An outstanding peer-review rating as an eminent member of the bar is a start. A history of participation in the local bar association and business organizations as well as in nonprofits or community activities could also be considered. Together, these attributes should indicate that the candidate has a comprehensive understanding of the city’s legal and civic environment.
Second, we do not need a “mayor-in-waiting.” From the start, this idea has been recklessly floated about an elected attorney general in the District. It has even led to questions about candidates’ political party affiliation. This is demeaning. As residents, we are the client, and the attorney general is our lawyer. The attorney general is the chief legal officer, with a duty to uphold and enforce D.C. laws — not to engage in political posturing or seek political advantage.
Finally, a candidate for attorney general must demonstrate an understanding of D.C. government. It is a huge and complicated municipal corporation with broad powers that touch nearly every aspect of residents’ lives. An appreciation of the proper scope and application of these powers is crucial.
Deciding who will serve as the first elected attorney general is an enormous responsibility for District voters. Let us be considered, thoughtful and attentive to recognize candidates who are qualified to carry out this important public trust.
The writer is partner and co-chair of DC Practice Group, Holland & Knight.