Earlier this week, the D.C. Council caused a minor commotion when it voted to make the District’s attorney general an elected position. While the mayor couldn't have been too pleased with the development, he may have gotten a bit of cheer from another bit of legal news – a new bill which would let allow him to pick local judges.
The legislation, introduced Tuesday by Councilmembers Phil Mendelson and Jack Evans, would let the mayor select judges for the D.C. Superior Court and the D.C. Court of Appeals with the council’s consent. Currently, judges are nominated by the president, who selects from a slate provided by the District of Columbia Judicial Nomination Commission. The nominee is then confirmed by the U.S. Senate. One recent Superior Court nominee has been stalled for eight months because a Republican senator put a hold on her confirmation vote.
The new bill would bill would leave the JNC in place, while changing who picks some of its members.
Equally important, the legislation would hand the responsibility for funding and administrating the courts back to the District government for the first time since 1997, when the federal government took over the responsibility.
If the bill passes, it will still need approval from Congress and a change in federal law. Moreover, in his fiscal impact statement the District’s chief financial officer said that “funds are not sufficient” over the next few fiscal years to implement the plan, which would cost an estimated $660 million between FY 2010 and FY 2013. It notes that the federal government budgeted $180 million to operate the D.C. courts for FY 2010 alone.
Nonetheless, Mendelson said he thought the bill was “worth having on the table for discussion.” As things stand now, Mendelson said, the District has no oversight over court issues that are important to locals – and Congress can’t be bothered to address them.
“When is the last time Congress had a hearing on juvenile justice in the District of Columbia, or speedy trials?” he said. “The D.C. court system is a stepchild to the courts system in the eyes of the congress.”
Mendelson then corrected himself. “Maybe I should say half-sister.”
The issue of who should pick the District’s judges, and who should fund the courts, has been a point of contention since the Home Rule Charter was passed in 1974, Evans said. He said that in 2001, the council unanimously passed a bill similar to the one introduced last week, but was met with resistance from the local judges.
“You cannot become a state unless you have control over your judiciary,” Evans said. “Why not throw it in the hopper and see what happens.”