The current attorney general for the District of Columbia, Irvin Nathan, has said he won't run to keep his job when the city switches to an elected attorney general in 2014. But that doesn't mean he lacks strong feelings about how the office should operate after he's gone.
Speaking on a panel yesterday afternoon with two of his predecessors, Nathan pitched a series of changes to the attorney general's office leading up to the next election, including expanded subpoena power and internal restructuring that would remove the attorney general's oversight of the general counsels of D.C. agencies.
Nathan sparred with his immediate predecessor, Peter Nickles, now a senior counsel at Covington & Burling, and former attorney general Robert Spagnoletti, a partner at Schertler & Onorato, over their visions for the office's future.
Nickles said the next attorney general had an “obligation to root out corruption” within city government, ticking off the recent scandals, investigations and criminal prosecutions involving various elected officials. Nickles famously butted heads on a number of issues with D.C. Council members when he served as attorney general under former Mayor Adrian Fenty from 2008 to 2010.
Nathan replied that it was misleading to imply the attorney general’s office could serve as the city’s chief law enforcement office when most major crimes were handled by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. The attorney general’s office could bring civil cases, Nathan said, noting his office filed a civil lawsuit against former Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr., for improperly using public funds before prosecutors brought criminal charges.
Spagnoletti called the proposal to get rid of the elected attorney general’s direct oversight of agency general counsel “unrealistic.” Nathan has said the plan would create a necessary buffer between the future attorney general, who would be independent of the mayor, and executive agencies. In the past, the attorney general was appointed by the mayor.
Spagnoletti warned splitting up the city’s legal officers could lead to fractured decision-making on questions of law. The plan, proposed by Mayor Vincent Gray (D) and Nathan, would include creating a unit within the mayor’s office to coordinate agency counsel, but Spagnoletti said the unit wouldn’t have real authority to force agency lawyers to act in a certain way.
Although he wouldn’t be running, Nathan said he was reaching out to several lawyers in government and in private practice to encourage them to run for the position. He encouraged residents to talk to people they considered a “lawyer’s lawyer.” Nathan hasn’t announced his post-government plans.
No one has publicly declared their candidacy to date. The primary election is set for next April and the general election will be in November.
Nickles urged voters to “follow the money” during the election. He called on whoever was elected to focus on being a good lawyer and try to avoid the pitfall of immediately angling for the mayoral seat or other elected office.
When asked by an attendee whether holding a partisan election for the job might scare off potential candidates, D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson (D) said he didn’t think injecting politics into the process of selecting the next attorney general was a bad thing. He said he wanted an official who would be responsive to the community’s needs, and that he would be more concerned if the official lacked strong principles.
The panel was hosted by the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law. Dean Katherine Broderick moderated. Former councilmember Kathy Patterson also participated.
National Law Journal photo by Zoe Tillman.