Judge hands DC budget authority back to Congress

"Congress has plenary authority over the District, and it is the only entity that can provide budget autonomy," wrote Judge Emmet Sullivan. “It tugs at the heartstrings,” he said. “But the court can’t rule from the heart.”
By Gabrielle Levy  |  May 19, 2014 at 1:37 PM
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WASHINGTON, May 19 (UPI) -- A federal judge ruled Friday against the District of Columbia's budget autonomy charter amendment, through which the city council had attempted to wrest control over budget approval from congressional oversight.

Chafing against frequent efforts by Congressman to extend control over D.C.'s budget, the council voted unanimously to send a measure before the District's voters. It passed, and the council president sued Mayor Vincent Gray and Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey DeWitt to abide by it.

But U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan, while acknowledging his agreement with the "extraordinarily powerful" arguments that would give D.C. more latitude in making its own spending decisions, said the legal authority under the Home Rule Act of 1973 was out of the court's hands.

"As a native Washingtonian, the Court is deeply moved by Plaintiff's argument that the people of the District are entitled to the right to spend their own, local funds," Sullivan wrote. "Nevertheless, the Court is powerless to provide a legal remedy and cannot implement budget autonomy for the District."

"Congress has plenary authority over the District, and it is the only entity that can provide budget autonomy," he wrote. "It tugs at the heartstrings," he said. "But the court can't rule from the heart."

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, in a statement expressed his disappointment and promised an appeal, although the council attorney said the 2015 city budget would be passed as though the autonomy law were not in place.

"I continue to believe there is strong justification for the law that we passed -- which received overwhelming approval by voters in a 2013 referendum and has not been challenged by Congress," Mendelson said in a statement.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.'s non-voting delegate to Congress and a leading proponent of the Districts efforts to gain more autonomy, similarly expressed disappointment.

"Whatever the final outcome of the Council's friendly litigation, it should help us bring the attention of the nation to the obligation of Congress to allow the District to control its locally raised revenue," Norton said in a statement.

Council v. Gray Memoradum Opinion

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