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Karl A. Racine
Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia

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Federal Judge Rules Budget Autonomy Act Violates Federal Law, Upholds Mayor and CFO's Actions Refusing to Implement the Act

Monday, May 19, 2014

Ted Gest
Public Information Officer
[email protected]

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A federal judge ruled today that the District’s Local Budget Autonomy Act of 2012 (BAA) violates federal law and cannot be enforced, D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan said today.
In this case, the Council sued Mayor Vincent C. Gray and Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey S. DeWitt, demanding that they enforce the BAA, despite a formal opinion of Attorney General Nathan that the BAA violates federal law.   In a 47-page opinion, Judge Emmet Sullivan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia agreed with the Office of the Attorney General that because Congress has not yet authorized the District to spend its locally collected revenues without congressional approval, the BAA is invalid.  

The Court found that that the BAA “is contrary to the plain language of the Home Rule Act, which prohibits the Council from changing the role of the federal government in the appropriation of the total budget of the District,” and that it “violates a separate federal statute, the Anti-Deficiency Act, which prohibits District employees from spending public money unless it has been appropriated by Congress.”  Judge Sullivan acknowledged that while there are “extraordinarily powerful” policy arguments in favor of budget autonomy, the Council’s legal arguments “cannot withstand judicial scrutiny,” and are contrary to the language of the Home Rule Act, as well as the Act’s “legislative history …the experience of almost 40 years of Home Rule; and common sense.”   The Court concluded: “Congress has plenary authority over the District, and it is the only entity that can provide budget autonomy.”  Accordingly, the Court granted summary judgment to Mayor Gray and CFO DeWitt, and denied all relief requested by the Council.

Mayor Gray said:  “Today’s ruling is bittersweet, because there is no fiercer advocate for budget autonomy in the District of Columbia than me.  However, given the concerns I have continually expressed, I’m not surprised by the ruling.  As I have said all along, we need to gain the freedom to spend our own money legally.  I will continue to advocate forcefully for Congress to grant budget autonomy for the District of Columbia.  The 647,000 residents of our nation’s capital deserve the freedom to spend our own money as we see fit without first getting a permission slip from Congress.  I thank Attorney General Nathan and his team for their excellent legal work in this matter.”

Attorney General Nathan, who previously issued a formal opinion concluding that the BAA is invalid and   argued the summary judgment motions to the Court on behalf of the Mayor and CFO, said: “We are pleased that the budget process will be back on track in the Council and that Judge Sullivan agreed with us that the Home Rule Act and Anti-Deficiency Act do not permit the Council to take budget authority from Congress and the President.”  He added: “We regret that the District does not yet have full budget autonomy, and we endorse the views of all the participants -- including the Mayor, the Council, and the Court -- that the time has come for Congress to grant full budget autonomy to the District.”

Finally, the Attorney General commended the team of lawyers at the Office of the Attorney General who contributed to the OAG opinion regarding the BAA and to the litigation, including Ariel Levinson-Waldman, the Senior Counsel to the Attorney General; from OAG’s Public Interest Division Ellen Efros, Deputy Attorney General, and Senior Assistant Attorney General Andrew Saindon and Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Bush; and from OAG’s Legal Counsel Division Janet Robins, Arthur Parker, and Laurie Ensworth.   The Attorney General also praised the contributions of pro bono outside counsel Seth Waxman and Daniel Volchok of WilmerHale  and Lawrence Robbins and Eric White of Robbins, Russell, Englert, Orseck, Untereiner & Sauber.