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Court: No vote in Congress for D.C.

(Published March 27, 2000)

By OSCAR ABEYTA

Staff Writer

Democracy advocates vowed to carry on the fight for voting rights for D.C. residents despite a 2-1 federal court decision striking down two lawsuits seeking representation in Congress.

Attorney George S. LaRoche, the lead attorney for one of the lawsuits — Adams v. Clinton, known popularly as the "20 citizens" lawsuit — said the court ignored the merits of his lawsuit and instead dealt only with the other lawsuit, Alexander v. Daley. He said the court used the arguments against the merits of Alexander v. Daley to rule against the 20 D.C. residents he represented in the Adams suit.

"This is the most fundamental denial of due process of law," LaRoche said at a press conference on the steps of the courthouse March 20, the day the ruling was handed down. LaRoche filed a motion March 23 asking the court for summary judgment in favor of the claims not addressed in the court’s ruling.

Plaintiffs in Alexander v. Daley, which included 55 D.C. residents and the city government, vowed at a March 21 press conference to appeal the decision all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Reaction to the court ruling was swift and vocal, with politicians and activists blasting the three-judge panel’s decision.

"Continuing to deprive American citizens of congressional representation offends the ideals upon which our Republican Party was founded," Councilman David Catania, R-At large, wrote in a letter to Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. He asked Hastert’s help in securing voting rights for the District.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., in a prepared statement said she expects strong support from the White House for any appeal to the Supreme Court.

"All along an appeal was inevitable by whichever side did not prevail," said Norton, an attorney who taught constitutional law before becoming the District’s non-voting delegate to Congress. "It is rare for a groundbreaking case involving fundamental rights to be decided, once and for all, in the lower courts."

The 68-page majority opinion, handed down March 20 by a special panel of three judges convened in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, conceded that an inequality exists in how U.S. citizens who live in the District are treated when it comes to congressional representation. But it said that inequality is the result of the Constitution and precedents set by the Supreme Court, and therefore it was beyond the panel’s authority to rule in the plaintiffs’ favor.

In their written opinion, U.S. Circuit Court Judge Merrick B. Garland and U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly said they were not unsympathetic to the plight of voteless D.C. residents.

"Like our predecessors, we are not blind to the inequity of the situation plaintiffs seek to change," they wrote. "But…this court lacks the authority to grant plaintiffs the relief they seek. If they are to obtain it, they must plead their case in other venues."

In a strongly worded 69-page dissent, U.S. District Court Judge Louis Oberdorfer sided with D.C. residents, saying, "I have found nothing that necessitates federal officials continuing the practice of obstructing the ‘precious’ constitutional right of the inhabitants of the District of Columbia to vote for voting representation in the House of Representatives."

The "20 citizens" lawsuit claimed that defendants from President Clinton to Congress to the control board violate the rights of D.C. residents to equal protection under the law. LaRoche cited such issues as interference with local budgeting authority, ballot initiatives and schools as examples of violations of citizenship rights. The lawsuit sought among remedies the possibility of D.C. residents voting for either retrocession to Maryland or for statehood for the District.

The Alexander v. Daley lawsuit did not go so far as proposing statehood. That lawsuit asked the court to order Congress to stop denying the District’s citizens congressional representation that other U.S. citizens residing in federal enclaves around the world enjoy.

Both lawsuits were filed separately in the summer of 1998 and were consolidated by the court that November. The final arguments were made last April.

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator