Voters Lawsuit Idea Draws Applause
||The Currents (DC)
||Wednesday, February 11, 1998
An American University law professor's six-prolonged approach to challenging the District's lack of representation in Congress drew a standing ovation from many attendees at a special meeting on home rule last week.
Professor Jamin Raskin's proposed class-action lawsuit is only one portion of what D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who sponsored the meeting, described as a multifaceted thrust toward restoring home rule.
However, Raskin said after the meeting that the first draft of his law review article is a long way from being an actual lawsuit.
"Everybody got very excited about it, but it's all still in the exploratory states," Raskin said.
Norton told a crowd of about 400 she hoped the meeting would be a first step toward developing a new home rule charter that could be adopted once the city balances its budget for four years, thereby eliminating the congressional mandate for the financial control board that has overseen city operations since 1995.
What that charter will be, Norton said, "this Washingtonian confesses ignorance."
The first featured speaker was former Charlotte, N.C., mayor Harvey Gantt, now chair of the National Capital Planning Commission. Gantt described the council-manager of "weak mayor" form of government - with an elected major and council and appointed city manager - that most North Carolina cities employ.
Raskin began his presentation by nothing that previous challenges to the District residents' lack of congressional representation focused on the principle of "no taxation without representation."
"That's a great slogan, but it isn't in the Constitution," Raskin said.
He then described six ways in which District residents are, according to his theory, deprived of constitutional rights.
The primary argument was that since only District residents lack the right to vote for senators and representatives, this violates the 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection of the laws. Raskin said the federal government has shown "no compelling reason to disenfranchise" District residents.
Raskin also said District residents' rights are abridged because:
"In fact, the only place where you can move and not have the right to vote for congressmen is the District of Columbia," Raskin said.
- since no state may take away a citizen's voting rights, Congress may not do it to District citizens;
- if gerrymandered districts to increase minority representation are unconstitutional, as the current Supreme Court has held, a majority-black district like D.C. where the citizens have no vote must also be unconstitutional;
- losing the right to vote by moving to the District deprives citizens of their "right to travel";
- conversely, moving out of the District to gain voting rights represents an unconstitutional "poll tax"; and
- since the Overseas Citizens Voting Rights Act ensures the vote for Americans who move out of the country, it should also preserve that right for persons who move to D.C.
Citing after the Supreme Court case, Raskin elicited a reaction rarely seen in his law classes. About half the audience stood to applaud his mini-lecture, prompting Norton to quip, "This is the first law professor in history who’s ever gotten a standing ovation for an academic piece."
Norton also cited other strategies to gain more democratic representation for District residents.
The nonvoting delegate said she would lobby Congress to restore measures of autonomy gradually as the government reforms itself, and to give her back her vote in the House Committee of the Whole.
Other speakers included Stand Up for Democracy leader Mark Thompson, who urged citizens to continue protesting while others pursued legal remedies.
Tenleytown resident Tim Cooper, who heads Democracy First, described efforts to appeal to the Organization of American States and the United National Commission on Human Rights on behalf of District residents.
"If they find a flagrant violation [of voting rights] in our own national capital, it would be a massive - and I underscore massive - humiliation for our national government," Cooper said.
Raskin said later he does not have a solution in mind - such as statehood or retrocession to Maryland. He said he hopes his article will stimulate local leaders and citizens to work that out themselves.
"The contribution I've tried to focus on is the fact that the current situation is not consistent with constitutional norms," he said.
While the many home-rule activists in the crowd expressed support for Raskin's representation, others were more reserved.
"Jamie Raskin is very interesting," said Julie Finley, chair of the D.C. Republican Party. "And it's not that I disagree with him, but I wanted to hear the other side, too. It wasn't balanced."
Mickey Wheatley, a constitutional lawyer and Ward 1 resident who attended the meeting , said whether Raskin's arguments can convince federal judges depends on whether they have a liberal or conservative interpretation of the Constitution.
"The countervailing argument says Congress can do whatever it wants to the District," Wheatley said, referring to the constitutional dominion over the federal district. "The two clauses are contradictory."
Wheatley said if an accompanying popular outcry for voting rights accompanies the lawsuit, it would have a better chance of success.
"His points are very well taken, but they're not airtight. They're just not - far from it," he said.