While Congress has granted the District of Columbia a fair measure of home rule authority over the years, there’s one power that Congress has jealously guarded for itself: appropriations power over the District’s budget. A challenge to that authority is now before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and DWT has filed an amicus brief in the case in support of the District’s mayor, Vincent Gray.

The case arose from a referendum passed overwhelmingly by D.C. residents in April 2012, granting the D.C. city council budget autonomy. Frustrated by congressional gridlock in approving the District’s budget in recent years, District officials and residents wanted the power to spend their local tax revenue without an annual congressional appropriation. 

But the Gray administration, while extremely supportive of budget autonomy in principle, doesn’t consider the charter amendment to be lawful, and even believes that city officials could face federal sanctions were funds to be expended under the Budget Autonomy Act without a congressional appropriation. A Federal District judge agreed, and struck down the law in May.

The city council has appealed. Given the political significance of the case, many former District and federal officials have filed dueling amicus briefs. The District of Columbia Attorney General’s office reached out to DWT, through our partner Laura Handman, to draft an amicus brief on behalf of former senior legal officials in the District, supporting the Mayor’s position.

Chip English and Mark Perlis stepped in to write the brief, which argues that the city council and its allies “misapprehend the lawful scope of Charter amendments and rely on misplaced canons of construction that would undo the fundamental structure of the District government created when Congress delegated limited home rule.” 

The case was argued before a panel of the D.C. Circuit on October 17 and a decision is expected within a few months. Says Perlis: “The decision will establish important precedent concerning the limits of the District’s home rule power, the use of a charter amendment referendum process, and the scope of Congress’s reserved appropriation powers over the District’s taxing and spending.”

Complete Fall 2014 Pro Bono Report