Thursday, January 29


Sam Smith

I received a letter today from Walter Smith, Executive Director of DC Appleseed inviting me to serve as a plaintiff in an expected suit after Congress approves a voting seat for the city in the House of Representatives.

Now there are a lot of reasons why I wouldn't do this just based on the facts of the situation. Among them:

- The seat is the most pathetic expansion of local power one could have chosen. Its supporters have lifted not one finger for statehood or for any meaningful modification of the city's status other than their favorite: token representation in the House.

- The seat in no way changes the city's colonial status. Algeria, for example, had seats in the French Assembly but remained fully a colony.

- The vote DC is getting is being intentionally countermanded by an additional seat in Republican Utah, which is, as Julius Hobson once put it, like sending a eunuch to an orgy.

- DC Vote, the DC government and their allies have not done anything for real self government while funneling millions of dollars into DC Vote, a group clearly created to distract local residents from their true colonial status.

- This is not a new phenomenon. For example:

1888: Conservative newspaperman Theodore Noyes of the Washington Star launches campaign for congressional representation; strongly opposes real democracy. Noyes writes, "National representation for the capital community is not in the slightest degree inconsistent with control of the capital by the nation through Congress."

1899: A political scientist describes the Board of Trade - which supports a congressional vote only -- as providing DC with the ideal form of local government through a "representative aristocracy."

1919: Board of Trade and Chamber of Commerce advocate congressional representation and oppose home rule.

1934: A special committee recommends a nonvoting delegate but no home rule.

1943: Board of Trade appears before Senate Committee to support representation in Congress but opposes local self-government.

1960s: Segregationist Rep. John McMillan favors a DC vote for president and vice president, says a struggle for home rule will cripple the national vote. McMillan thinks the national vote should "satisfy" DC residents "at least for a while."

1971: DC gets a nonvoting congressional delegate. In first delegate race, the statehood arguments of Julius Hobson are strongly opposed by Walter Fauntroy who will become the leader of a lengthy and futile drive for a constitutional amendment granting congressional representation.

1972: Walter Fauntroy and John Hechinger, later major players in the voting rights drive, sabotage George McGovern's planned announcement of support for DC statehood.

1981: The League of Women Voters, Walter Fauntroy, and the Washington Post - all strong advocates of congressional voting representation - are the leading voices again DC statehood.

1985: The voting rights amendment is defeated with less than half the required states voting for it. Meanwhile years of potential work for full democracy are dissipated and diluted.

2004: Delegate Norton convinces the Democratic Party to drop DC statehood from its platform, to be replaced by a call for voting rights. According to The Washington Times, "Pat Elwood, vice chairman of the [Democratic] state committee, said she agreed with Mrs. Norton's view that statehood 'dilutes' the message of congressional voting representation.

But what was truly astounding about the DC Appleseed letter was that I received it because I had been one of the 20 plaintiffs in the Adams v. Clinton case that a decade ago raised issues never before heard in court concerning DC's status and which included statehood as one of the suggested remedies.

The case was drawn up by the late activist lawyer George LaRoche. He went to major law firms, including Covington & Burling, and to the Corporation Council (now the attorney general) seeking assistance. Not a single establishment law firm nor the city government would help and so LaRoche filed the case himself.

Now comes the truly seedy part. Unbeknownst to us, the local legal establishment started working on a competing case deliberately to sabotage ours. As the author of the letter to me, Walter Smith, has described it: "I was the Deputy Corporation Counsel for the District of Columbia when Corporation Counsel John Ferren and I determined that a lawsuit needed to be brought on behalf of the District and its citizens contending that our lack of voting representation is unconstitutional. . . With the pro bono assistance of one of the District's leading law firms, Covington & Burling, we brought that suit before a three-judge federal court on July 4, 1998." Just weeks after we had filed.

You didn't need to be a lawyer to realize it was a lousy case and its only possible raison d'etre was to put a knife in our more serious litigation.

The special court that heard the case agreed. While it threw out both cases, the only arguments it addressed were in the DC establishment case. One got the sense that their litigation had provided the court with an easy excuse not to address the real issues we had raised. In any case, the corporation counsel and Covington & Burling had not only set statehood back, but all home rule. The one bright spot was that since the court was afraid to address our arguments, they can still be heard another day.

There was, however, one more act that revealed the tawdry motivations of those trying to kill our case. On the night before the matter came to trial I got a call from George LaRoche saying that he had learned that the word had been passed that we were going to cause a disturbance at the federal courthouse the next day and so we should be ready for a major police presence.

It was an absurd allegation. The 20 Citizens included not only this Quaker educated newspaper editor, but a leading minister, a former secretary of the city council and a woman confined to a wheelchair.

Fellow plaintiff Rev. Graylan Hagler of Plymouth Congregational Church and I entered the courthouse together. Inside, a US Marshal comes up and asks, "Can I help you gentlemen?" Graylan asks where we can get some coffee and the Marshal points down the stair, adding, "I've been to your church, Reverend. One of my men is on your vestry. Let's go bless him." The pair returns and the Marshal shakes hands with each of the plaintiffs and leads us to some of the best seats in the courtroom. From threat to honored guests in less than five minutes.

The incident illustrated that in a colony you can't always tell your friends by their title, something of which I was again reminded when I got that letter today from the executive director of DC Appleseed, one of those who once helped kill our lawsuit because it might have brought the city too much democracy.


At 10:53 AM, Blogger The Sanguine Pen said...

Back in the day, a ten-mile square was about an hour's ride at full gallop from the boundary to the Capitol. Today, an hour's ride by common ground transportation (automobile) is more like 45-50 miles (neglecting rush hour). So we should update Constitution by re-sizing the District, to protect Congress from potential tank attacks originating in Maryland or Virginia, by expanding the boundaries of the District to roughly a fifty-mile radius from the Capitol.

We've already spent a half-billion dollars to create an underground bunker cleverly called a "Visitor's Center" just east of the Capitol (in case Delaware should try aerial attacks?).


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