It's been a busy past few weeks for D.C. Councilmember Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6). In late December, he took over as chair of the council's judiciary and public safety committee. On February 4, he announced plans to explore a mayoral campaign in 2014.
Wells has something his predecessor on the judiciary committee, D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson (D) did not: a law degree. Wells said that although he hasn't worked in the courthouse in years – he quickly disavowed the idea that he's an expert on the judiciary – his background gives him an understanding of how the court works and issues facing the justice system. In an interview with Legal Times late last month, Wells spoke about his priorities and what he's working on now.
Some of Wells' agenda is pre-ordained. Most notably, he'll oversee the city's transition to an elected attorney general in 2014. Wells said that because the attorney general's office today serves as the executive branch's in-house counsel, the city may need to create a separate corporation counsel-type position to also oversee in-house attorneys at city agencies that report to the mayor.
"I'm not sure exactly what that position is, if it's a corporation counsel or if it's the senior legal counsel for the executive. But we need to be sure that those functions are covered when we separate the [attorney general's] office out," Wells said.
On the public safety side, Wells said he's interested in resolving the city's labor contract with law enforcement, tackling juvenile crime, weighing the use of more security cameras in neighborhoods around the city, and considering a bill introduced last month that would reform how police carry out eyewitness identifications during criminal investigations. He said he'll be meeting with the Department of Corrections to talk about possible plans for a new jail.
"I'm working through each of those things and I'm listening to advocates as they come in," he said. "I have a very full schedule of people coming in to brief me on their areas of interest."
Also high on his list is responding to a report released in late January by Human Rights Watch that accuses D.C. police of mishandling sexual assault cases and mistreating victims. Wells said he's thinking of bringing in pro bono counsel to review the report in preparation for a hearing before his committee.
Wells' roots with the local court system run deep. As a child protection social worker in the 1980s, Wells said he spent considerable time in the courthouse; he earned his law degree in 1991. During his 15 years leading the D.C. Consortium for Child Welfare, he helped push in the early 2000s for the creation of a Family Court within the D.C. Superior Court.
Wells said that since taking over the judiciary committee he's already met with Superior Court Chief Judge Lee Satterfield. He said the two got to know each other years ago when Wells, as a school board member, and Satterfield, as the family division chief, co-chaired a task force on truancy.
"He's someone who I've admired for quite a while as a great public servant, and so I met with him pretty quickly after the appointment to talk about the judiciary and also ways he can help advise me informally on some of the legislative matters that I have to deal with," Wells said.
For now, Wells is preparing for upcoming budget and performance oversight hearings for the 30-plus agencies and entities under his committee, and spending time getting reacquainted with the city's justice system.
"Part of what I start with is not really my own agenda, but finding out what are the reform initiatives that others have been working on, and seeing how I can be helpful in either passing them or certainly getting them considered," he said.