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Litigation won't win D.C. democracy
(Published April 5, 2004)


Last month a federal court handed the District the latest in a long series of defeats in lawsuits aimed at gaining D.C. residents some or all of the rights enjoyed by other Americans. The ruling by a U.S. District Court judge dismissed a suit to overturn the congressional ban on a commuter tax. The suit, filed by the D.C. government and individual citizens, argued that the ban harms the District financially by prohibiting the collection of taxes from the 300,000 suburban commuters who use D.C. streets and services, and noted that many cities around the country depend upon revenue from commuter taxes. But the merits of the argument didn’t sway the judge, who ruled that Congress instituted the ban, and only Congress can remove it.

This follows the Adams vs. Clinton and Alexander vs. Daley suits – the latter to give the District a vote in Congress, the former to establish broader constitutional rights for the District – that the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear in 2000. As with the commuter tax suit, the earlier litigants presented cogent arguments about the unfair treatment of D.C. citizens – in which residents pay federal taxes (more per capita than any state except Connecticut), fight and die in our nation’s wars, and bear all the responsibilities of citizenship, but have no vote in Congress and are subject to congressional control over our budget, laws and criminal justice system.

It’s no mystery why these lawsuits failed. The District’s inability to win relief in the courts is thanks to Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, the relevant portion which reads: "The Congress shall have power . . .to exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, over such District . . .as may . . . become the seat of the government of the United States." In other words, according to the Constitution, we’re legally screwed. Any litigation will hit the same brick wall.

So what to do? D.C. democracy activists have proposed a number of remedies:

*Simple legislation to win voting rights in Congress;

*A constitutional amendment to provide voting rights and legislative/budget autonomy;

*Retrocession to Maryland;


The merits and flaws of each of these have been discussed and debated among local activists, and I won’t rehash these arguments now, except to say: Let the debate continue.

But more important is the need for D.C. citizens to come together in making the nation and the world aware of the outrageous treatment of the residents of the nation’s capital and gaining widespread support for righting this enormous injustice. We can worry about the mechanics once the issue makes the national agenda. Just as the first task of the civil rights struggle was to convince the nation of the injustice of segregation and Jim Crow, the first task of the D.C. democracy movement is to win the hearts and minds of all Americans who have a sense of fairness.

And just as the civil rights movement was launched by direct action – from Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to the back of the bus to lunch counter sit-ins – the D.C. democracy movement will depend upon activists going door to door to engage D.C. residents in the struggle, walking the halls of Congress, working the news media and taking the case to international bodies (as with the recent victory before a panel of the Organization of American States). The current campaign to free D.C.’s budget from congressional control that culminated last Oct. 1 with "Budget Autonomy for the District Day" (or "B.A.D. Day," as dubbed by its organizers) points the way, as activists took their case first to D.C. neighborhoods – gathering more than 1,000 petition signatures – then to the halls of Congress. Subsequently, the Senate passed, and the House is considering, legislation that would give the District budget autonomy.

No, we can’t count on courts to do our work for us. There will be no shortcuts on the road to full democracy. Victory will come only if we are willing to commit our minds and bodies to a difficult struggle – for as long as it takes.

And speaking of "B.A.D. Day": As my earlier columns noted, I and six other activists were arrested last Oct. 1 while petitioning the Capitol Hill office of House Speaker Dennis Hastert to free D.C.’s budget from congressional control. We each face a potential six months in jail and $300 in fines for exercising our right to petition the government. Our rescheduled trial will begin at 9:30 a.m. April 19 in Courtroom 212 of D.C. Superior Court, 500 Indiana Ave. NW, before Judge Craig Iscoe. A pre-trial rally outside the courthouse will begin at 8 a.m. that day. If you support the idea of taking the District’s cause directly to the powers that be, showing up at the rally and packing the courtroom will help send that message.


Bill Mosley is a member of the Stand Up! For Democracy in D.C. Coalition. Contact him at

Copyright 2004, The Common Denominator