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D.C. Courts Face Turf, Judicial Woes

A recent move by the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia and the alarming vacancies on the D.C. Superior Court and the District of Columbia Court of Appeals has residents and leaders in the District bewildered about the state of the city’s judicial system.

In the District, the U.S. Attorney’s Office prosecutes local and federal crimes, the only U.S. jurisdiction that has that type of arrangement. The judges in the D.C. Superior Court and the D.C. Court of Appeals, the “Supreme Court of the District” are appointed by the president and must have approval from the U.S. Senate, the only state-level entity with those requirements.

While District residents have long complained about the lack of autonomy regarding their judicial system, U.S. Attorney Jessie K. Liu, an appointee of President Trump, on Feb. 6 moved to have some District gun charges moved from the Superior Court to the federal court, with the blessing of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D).

“To build a safer, stronger D.C., there must be a swift and certain accountability when people are arrested for gun crimes,” Bowser said. “We are primarily focused on one specific charge: felon in possession. In addition to increasing accountability for repeat offenders, we also remain very focused on preventing crime before it happens, expanding opportunity for residents who are at risk of perpetuating or falling victim to violent crime, and ensuring that our returning citizens have access to meaningful resources and supports.”

The program, known as the “Felon in Possession” initiative, have the U.S. Attorney’s Office and federal law enforcement partners charge and prosecute cases in the U.S. District Court for previously convicted felons illegally possessing guns. The partnership leverages federal resources, such as the FBI, DEA, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives and the U.S. Marshal Service to support the D.C. police department and the D.C. Department of Forensic Sciences with complex criminal investigations.

Attorney William Lightfoot, a former D.C. Council member and currently partner at the Koonz, McKenney, Johnson, DePaolis & Lightfoot law firm in the District, said he supports Liu’s action.

“The U.S. court system has resources that the city does not in those particular cases,” Lightfoot said, adding that the resources of federal law enforcement agencies in prosecuting those cases could lighten the load of prosecutors and Superior Court judges.

However, not everyone liked the arrangement.

“I am very concerned about the [U.S. attorney’s] decision to shift local crimes under federal law in the U.S. District Court, rather than under the District law in the D.C. Superior Court,” said D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the council’s Committee on the Judiciary & Public Safety.

Allen said the District has “the strongest and smartest gun laws in the nation” and that are drawbacks with District defendants being prosecuted in the federal system, such as not having access to local programs that benefit returning citizens and young offenders and youth not having the chance to have their records expunged under city law.

He said the recent move by Liu reminded him when “22 years ago, the District made a terrible bargain to cede all control of our justice system to the federal government and it has had lasting and destructive consequences that we must undo.”

D.C. Council member Robert White (D-At Large) also railed against Liu’s action.

“I am disappointed and disturbed by the mayor’s announced rollback of local control over our criminal justice system,” White said. “By prosecuting increasing numbers of District residents under federal law and in the federal court, not only do we move backward in our ongoing fight for statehood and local control, but we undercut due process as well.”

White pointed out that defendants in the U.S. District Court will have access to only 10 full-time attorneys serving as public defenders, rather than the highly-respected, nationally-known Public Defender for the District of Columbia that has over 200 full-time employees.

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton has said throughout her tenure that the city should have its own prosecutor and has introduced legislation to do that.

“A U.S. attorney has no business prosecuting the local crimes of a jurisdiction, an out-of-date status quo that harkens to pre-Home Rule D.C.,” Norton said. “D.C. should be solely be responsible for prosecuting local crimes and my bill gives D.C. the same authority that the states and U.S. territories enjoy as an essential element of self-government.”

This matter has come up as the Superior Court and the Court of Appeals deals with lack of judges. The Superior Court has 10 vacancies that need to be filled out of judge pool of 62 while the Court of Appeals has two openings.

“Those openings are very important,” Lightfoot said. “When you don’t have a full bench, it delays the scheduling of hearings, and court days. Justice delayed is justice denied.”

The District’s Judicial Nomination Commission recommends candidates to the president for appointment to the Superior Court and the Court of Appeals. Presently, President Trump has sent four nominations to the U.S. Senate for Superior Court vacancies.

Bowser and members of her executive team recently met with the Office of the White House Counsel about the backlog of appointments of judges.

“This backlog has become a key public safety matter for the District of Columbia as we work to build a safer, strong D.C. and has prevented the District from making progress on key affordable housing projects,” the mayor’s office said in a statement.

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