Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton isn’t giving up her quest to get the feds to take a back-seat role in prosecuting local District of Columbia crimes. The non-voting Democratic delegate to Congress has reintroduced a bill to establish a District Attorney’s office for Washington.
As a federal enclave, Washington is ultimately governed by Congress. Norton’s bill, the proposed District of Columbia District Attorney Establishment Act, is part of a long-time push by Washingtonians to wield more control over local affairs.
Norton has introduced the measure in each of the past three sessions of Congress – in 2003, 2006, and 2007. The effort follows a 2002 referendum in which District residents voted to establish a locally elected D.A. Currently, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia prosecutes local crimes – from burglaries to murders. The D.C. U.S. Attorney also shoulders a weighty national security docket, including holding habeas hearings on motions from Guantanamo Bay prisoners challenging their detention.
Norton has picked up one co-sponsor for her bill, Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), this go around. Establishing an elected position of district attorney would require an act of Congress and presidential approval.
D.C. Councilmember Phil Mendelson, who chairs the Council’s Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary, told Main Justice he hasn’t spoken to Norton about the bill’s chances and didn’t want to speculate. Mendelson did say that historically Congress has been pre-occupied with federal issues and “just doesn’t get” the importance of home rule in the District. “It’s just hard to get their attention,” said Mendelson.
The size and scope of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District make it one of the most coveted positions in federal law enforcement. Attorney General Eric Holder was the first African-American to serve as U.S. attorney for the District at the recommendation of Norton. Norton spokeswoman Sonsyrea Montgomery didn’t say if Norton has spoken to Holder about her proposal, and said she would check with Norton to see if she believed she had enough support for the bill to move forward.
Channing D. Phillips is acting U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. Main Justice reported that Ron Machen has interviewed with the Justice Department and is likely to be the next U.S. Attorney for the District.
Norton argues that the District U.S. Attorney “needs to be freed up to handle national security and other vital federal cases, particularly in the post-9/11 nation’s capital.” But a spokesman for the office seemed to think it was handling the caseload just fine.
“We put a huge amount of resources into local prosecutions,” Ben Friedman told Main Justice. “We are the local prosecutor and we act like it.”
Norton’s desire to have an elected district attorney is a legitimate issue, said Friedman. But he added that the U.S. Attorney’s Office “does everything that a local D.A. does and more.” There are over 350 assistant U.S. attorneys in the D.C. office, including 146 assistant U.S. attorneys divided into four main sections working on local crime and 76 on the federal side, according to Friedman.
All employees of the District U.S. attorney’s office are federal employees. Asked what would happen if the bill actually made its way through Congress and was signed into law, Friedman said he wasn’t sure.
“I honestly wouldn’t even speculate, I couldn’t imagine how it would work,” said Friedman.
Holder served as U.S. Attorney for D.C. from 1993 until 1997 and embraced his role in the prosecution of local crime, “paying nightly visits to churches and advisory neighborhood commissions, he focused attention on raising the office’s community profile and on beefing up local law enforcement,” according to a 1997 article in Washington City Paper. He does not appear to have an opinion on record as to whether the District needs a D.A.
Norton introduced Holder at his Senate confirmation hearing in January, stating that he ”created a new gold standard” by “localizing the district’s part of his jurisdiction by, for example, placing assistant U.S. attorneys in communities for the very first time while strenuously carrying forward significant federal prosecutions.”
“Eric wore two very different high-profile hats at the same time with remarkable skill,” said Norton.
Despite the innovations Norton credited to Holder, she still would like to see the way local cases are handled overhauled.
Mendelson said the recent case of Tony Hunter, a gay man who was killed on his way to a gay bar whose killer was charged with manslaughter, shows that federal prosecutors aren’t always as in touch with the local community as an elected district attorney would be.
“I don’t want to convey that [the U.S. attorney] was insensitive, but a local prosecutor would be more sensitive to the local community’s feelings,” said Mendelson.
“There is no law enforcement issue of greater importance to our residents, or on which we have less say, than the prosecution of local crimes here,” said Norton. “A U.S. Attorney has no business in the local criminal affairs of a local jurisdiction. This bill simply would make the District’s prosecutor accountable to the people by electing him or her, as elsewhere in the nation.”