July 7, 2014 | by Lateefah Williams
Vague D.C. statute hinders my attorney general run
Lateefah Williams, gay news, Washington Blade, attorney general

Lateefah Williams (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

This may come as a surprise, but for the past two weeks I have been privately exploring a run for D.C. attorney general. I decided to consider running after reading about the declared and potential candidates and feeling that there is no one in the race with an extensive background in public service or community advocacy.

While some people are salivating over the prospect of several “big law” partners showing interest in the race, I am concerned that underrepresented communities and the average person will not have a voice. The prospect of another attorney general who does not prioritize the pursuit of justice and service to all D.C. residents, particularly our most vulnerable residents, is a frightening scenario to me.

As a 37-year-old woman with more than a decade of experience as a licensed attorney (11 years in Maryland; six years in D.C.), I have a good blend of youth and seasoning. My previous experience includes serving as counsel to the Prince George’s County Maryland State Senate Delegation, political and legislative director for Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, and as a law firm associate handling insurance defense, plaintiff-side tort law, and family law matters.

Upon first glance, the qualifications for the attorney general position appear basic enough. They are:

 

§ 1-301.83. Minimum qualifications and requirements for Attorney General.

 

(a)    No person shall hold the position of Attorney General for the District of Columbia unless that person:

 

(1) Is a registered qualified elector as defined in § 1-1001.02(20);

 

(2) Is a bona fide resident of the District of Columbia;

 

(3) Is a member in good standing of the bar of the District of Columbia;

 

(4) Has been a member in good standing of the bar of the District of Columbia for at least 5 years prior to assuming the position of Attorney General; and

 

(5) Has been actively engaged, for at least 5 of the 10 years immediately preceding the assumption of the position of Attorney General, as:

 

 (A) An attorney in the practice of law in the District of Columbia;

 

(B) A judge of a court in the District of Columbia;

 

(C) A professor of law in a law school in the District of Columbia; or

 

(D) An attorney employed in the District of Columbia by the United States or the District of Columbia.

 

So, you have to be a D.C. resident and registered voter, who has been a member in good standing of the D.C. Bar for at least five years. The tricky part is section (a)(5)(A), which requires that you have been “actively engaged” for at least five of the last 10 years as an “attorney in the practice of law in the District of Columbia.” As an attorney who has spent most of my career engaged in legislative and policy work, I decided to seek clarification on this requirement.

It is a well-known and accepted practice that many organizations hire attorneys to work in public policy positions because of the additional legal analysis skillset that we bring to the position. The D.C. Code does not define the term “actively engaged,” so it is not immediately evident how this provision applies to attorneys with the requisite years of bar membership, who are practicing law in less traditional ways.

When I first pondered running for attorney general two weeks ago, I decided to call the D.C. Board of Elections to see if I meet this provision. I called and asked to speak to an attorney, but the person who answered the phone asked my concern, relayed my question to one of the attorneys, and then told me that the attorney said it did not matter what type of law I practiced, so public policy is fine. With this assurance, for the next two weeks, I began the process of reaching out to friends, relatives and community advocates to gain a sense of whether there was interest in my candidacy and the level of support that I would have or could potentially obtain.  After numerous conversations and weighing the pros and cons of running, I made the decision to run. I decided to pick up my petitions on July 3, so I could begin circulating them at events during the July 4 holiday weekend.

When I arrived at the Board of Elections, I convinced the front desk personnel to allow me to speak directly with one of the attorneys.  The attorney that I spoke with said that they had not pondered my specific question and she verified that the term “actively engaged” has not been defined. She suggested that I reach out to the General Counsel of the D.C. Council for more guidance. I called the Council’s General Council while I was still at the BOE and asked him my question about the qualifications. He also said that my specific question had not been considered and that I should reach out to the attorneys at the BOE because they would be tasked with interpreting the statute. I then told him that I was calling from the BOE and an attorney there suggested that I call him. He then said he would reach out directly to the BOE attorney, which he immediately did once we ended our call.

I then spoke to the BOE attorney again and she advised me that the D.C. Council’s general counsel is continuing to research the matter, including the legislative history, and that I should have guidance on the matter well before the deadline to submit petitions.  However, both attorneys seemed to lean toward the interpretation that to have been “actively engaged” as “an attorney in the practice of law” you must hold a position that cannot be held by a non-attorney.  Thus, lawyers who are active bar members and have practiced for decades, but are currently employed as corporate vice presidents or nonprofit executive directors would be excluded if they had done this work continuously for the past 6 years.

I presented them with my exact scenario. During four of the years in question, while an active member of the D.C. Bar, I served as a nonprofit speech rights policy analyst for OMB Watch (now the Center for Effective Government) researching and analyzing how tax laws impact nonprofits. I even mentioned the caveat that the nonprofit speech rights director who hired me was also an attorney and my legal expertise was one of the reasons I was hired.

The second position was as the political and legislative director for Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 (Metro’s largest union). This also may not meet their definition, even though at many organizations the legislative counsel reports to the legislative director.

The irony of all of this is that according to provision (a)(5)(D), if I was employed by D.C. government or the federal government, then I would only have to be an attorney, but the provision “in the practice of law” does not apply, so if someone graduates from law school, is admitted to the D.C. Bar, and works for the government in any capacity for five years, then they are eligible, but someone like me who practiced in Maryland for years in positions that would definitively count, then once licensed in D.C., used my legal expertise on public policy matters, is possibly precluded from running.

As I mentioned, the Council’s general counsel is continuing to research this matter and I expect him to give me guidance soon. I appreciate the time that the D.C. Council and Board of Elections attorneys took to immediately answer my questions and begin researching a scenario that does not appear to have been contemplated.  Even when I receive the D.C. Council’s general counsel’s opinion, it will serve as guidance, but it will not be official. Thus, if I decide to run and am challenged, the three-member Board of Elections would decide the matter and it could then be appealed to the D.C. courts.

Some may see this as evidence that the election should be held in 2018 and not 2014, but I believe this situation illustrates the opposite. If the D.C. Council was not so busy trying to push the election back to 2018, it may have paid more attention to important logistical matters surrounding the 2014 election. It is absolutely outrageous that in the midst of an election’s petition period, a potential candidate cannot receive definitive guidance on a key qualification for the race. It should increase the outrage that the result may serve to silence a candidate who is a member of several underrepresented groups that otherwise will not have a voice in this race.

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