WASHINGTON, D.C. – Attorney General Karl A. Racine today announced that his office filed a friend-of-the-court brief asserting that residents of the District of Columbia deserve full voting rights and are harmed by their lack of congressional representation. The Office of the Attorney General (OAG) filed the amicus brief in support of a lawsuit brought by a group of District residents who allege that Congress’s refusal to grant them representation violates their constitutional rights. The suit is seeking full voting representation in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate for District residents.
“For over 200 years, Congress has denied the residents of the District of Columbia representation based on false and often racist perceptions that we cannot govern ourselves,” said AG Racine. “Our more than 700,000 residents work hard, raise families, serve on juries, fight in wars, and pay the highest federal taxes per capita, yet we cannot elect a single voting member of Congress. It is unjust and unacceptable that we are still being deprived of our fundamental right to participate in our democracy and it is long past time for this to change.”
The brief, filed with the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, supports the plaintiffs in Castañon v. United States. The lawsuit was filed by 11 District residents—with assistance from the DC Appleseed Center and Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis—against the United States, President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and other government officials. These residents argue that Congress has the ability to grant voting rights and congressional representation to the District, and that by refusing to do so, it is violating District residents’ Due Process, Equal Protection, and First Amendment rights.
The District argues that the U.S. government has harmed District residents by:
- Unfairly disenfranchising residents for over 200 years, often on the basis of race: Congress has historically denied the District representation based on false and often race-based perceptions that its residents cannot govern themselves. After black men gained the right to vote in D.C. in 1867, they were elected to many local government positions. Then, in the 1870s, Congress eliminated local democracy from the District as a way of limiting the influence of these new black voters. (As Senator John Tyler Morgan of Alabama later described this situation, Congress decided “to burn down the barn to get rid of the rats...the rats being the negro population and the barn being the government of the District of Columbia.”) In the 1960s, President Johnson pushed for District voting rights as part of his civil rights agenda and recognized that it was unjust for a group of white congressmen to control a majority-black city. Although modern opponents of District voting rights have not rooted their opposition in explicit racial terms, they have continued to assert old stereotypes about the District’s supposed inability to self-govern.
- Allowing Congress to impose policy preferences on the District without say from its residents: Congress has more authority over the District than it has over any individual state. Members of Congress from other states can overturn District laws and impose their own policy preferences on the District, while District residents have no say. On many occasions, Congress has prevented the District from enacting its own laws and ballot measures, including when it prevented the implementation of a 1992 law extending healthcare benefits to people in domestic partnerships and repealed a 1998 law requiring District government employees to become District residents. Congress also prevented the District from responding fully to the AIDS crisis when it restricted its ability to institute a needle exchange program, and prevented the District from making local decisions about healthcare resources when it prohibited the use of local funds for abortion. More recently, Congress stopped the District from fully implementing a 2014 ballot measure to legalize marijuana, which passed with the support of about 65 percent of voters.
- Preventing residents from influencing decision-making about critical local problems: The District’s unique status as a federal territory means that Congress has significant authority over the District’s local government operations—and the fact that residents lack a voice in Congress means that local problems often go un-addressed. For example, Congress administers the District’s state-level court system, which handles everything from misdemeanors to zoning disputes and child abuse cases. Not only do District residents lack a voice in the Senate confirmation process for local judges, but the District is often forced to wait on Congress to fill judicial vacancies, creating significant strains on the court system and delaying the resolution of cases. The District must also wait on Congress to appropriate a significant portion of its budget. The congressional appropriations process is often marred by delays, which creates expensive uncertainties for District agencies and local businesses.
The brief is available at: https://oag.dc.gov/sites/default/files/2019-06/Castanon-v-US-Amicus.pdf
OAG Efforts to Advance D.C. Voting Rights & Representation
AG Racine strongly supports D.C. statehood and advocates for the rights of District residents at the national level. In April, AG Racine announced that 20 other Attorneys General from across the country had joined him in publicly supporting D.C. statehood for the first time. This coalition urged Congress to pass H.R. 51, the Washington, D.C. Admission Act. The bill would grant D.C. statehood, placing District residents on equal footing with residents of other states and giving them a voice in decisions that already shape their lives. It would also grant the District local control of its criminal and civil justice system, which is currently administered directly by the federal government, and would allow locally elected prosecutors, who are accountable to District residents, to handle local crimes.
H.R. 51 was introduced by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton and has garnered a record-breaking 206 co-sponsors from 42 states and territories. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has expressed her ardent support for the bill, and House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings has announced that he will hold a hearing on the bill on July 24. This will be the first time in 26 years that the House will hold a hearing on District statehood.