The statehood movement for Washington, D.C., has largely tried to persuade Congress to grant full citizenship — primarily federal representation — for city residents but a renewed effort has been launched by a leading think tank to achieve the same goals through the federal judicial system.
The DC Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, with the assistance of pro bono attorneys, filed a complaint with the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia on Nov. 5, 2018, alleging that the continual denial of full congressional voting rights for district’s nearly 633,000 residents violates the U.S. Constitution.
The District Court denied the complaint and DC Appleseed has appealed the decision, with an oral argument before a three-judge panel set to take place on Nov. 26 at the E. Barrett Prettyman Jr. Federal Courthouse.
Walter Smith, executive director of DC Appleseed, has played a key role in the federal courts strategy and thinks his organization’s efforts will pay off.
“We are asking the federal court to issue a declaratory judgment that it is unconstitutional for D.C. residents to pay taxes and have the other obligations of citizenship but have no voting rights in the U.S. Congress,” he said. “We are asking the court to ratify our right to have two voting U.S. senators and one representative.”
The effort to secure voting rights through the federal courts has been tried before.
In 2000, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled in a 2-1 decision in the case of Adams v Clinton Alexander v Daley that the Constitution granted voting rights in the Congress only to the states and therefore D.C. residents are entitled to vote.
However, Smith notes that under Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17 of the Constitution that the Congress has the power to confer congressional voting rights even though the district lacked state status.
“We argue the failure of Congress to grant us voting rights even though they have the authority to do so violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution,” he said.
Smith said parties that support DC Appleseed’s arguments to the court have filed amicus briefs or supporting legal documents to the court that include constitutional scholars, historians, leading lawyers and statehood advocates and the U.S. House of Representatives.
“The U.S. House of Representatives supports what we are doing and their attorney, Doug Letter, are working with us,” he said. “It is helpful to have one-half of the Congress on our side.”
The DC Appleseed official said the Trump administration’s Justice Department opposes the lawsuit arguing that the district lacks statehood status and only states can have voting representation.
Smith said he expected the U.S. Supreme Court to eventually hear the case.
“At the Supreme Court, the case will be decided one way or another,” he said. “This strategy is good for the city and even if we lose at the Supreme Court, we will gain nationwide visibility.”
DC Appleseed’s efforts have gained the support of Delegate. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the Democrat who provides the municipality with a non-voting voice in the U.S. House of Representatives,; Mayor Muriel Bowser; members of the D.C. Council and many statehood advocates.
Nevertheless, some supporters question DC Appleseed’s court strategy.
“I don’t think the court system is the right way for the district to gain statehood,” said Anise Jenkins, executive director of Standup! for Democracy, a pro-statehood organization.
“I think the citizens should go out in the streets and make the case for statehood and put pressure on public officials to act. This should be a public debate not in a courtroom.”
Smith said related activities would be taking place leading up the the Nov. 26 court hearing.
“There will be a pep rally featuring Norton, Mayor Bowser and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson,” he said. “We will have breakfast provided to us by Busboys and Poets. We are hoping for several hundred people to show up to support what we are doing.”