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This year, Washington, D.C., is celebrating 50 years of operating under the Home Rule Charter and the city’s Bar Association held a program recognizing the historic milestone and what further steps should be taken regarding residents seeking full citizenship in the Union.
The 2023 District of Columbia Judicial and Bar Conference, under the theme “Home Rule in D.C. at 50: Looking Back and Looking Forward,” occurred at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Northwest on April 28.
The program consisted of a plenary session of the District’s corporation counsels and attorneys general and afternoon sessions on topics related to Home Rule and other ancillary matters. The keynote luncheon served as the main attraction, with former D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt and Washington Post columnist Colby King serving as panelists on “A Conversation with Local Legends.” Robert Fairfax Jr., dean of the American University Washington School of Law, moderated the discussion.
The conference took place as Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives have taken steps to undermine the District’s authority to govern itself by passing in one instance and proposing in another disapproval resolutions on matters of revising the criminal code and nixing police reform, respectively. Last month, Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) and the leader of the D.C. police union joined D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) to testify before the House Oversight Committee on the issues surrounding criminal code reform. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser is scheduled to address the same committee on May 16 on her governance of the District.
Pratt, King Talk About Home Rule
In 1991, Pratt was sworn in as mayor of the District, arguably becoming the first Black woman to lead a major American city. Pratt, a District native, spoke of her awareness in early life of being a resident of the city and not having the rights that other American citizens had.
“I was born that way, but I won’t die that way,” Pratt, 79, said. “When Home Rule passed Congress in 1973 and we had our first elections in 1974, District residents had an avenue of participation in our democracy. We had been marginalized so much, we now had to deal with this extraordinary moment.”
From its inception in 1790, the District was largely ruled by the Congress based on the U.S. Constitution, with changes in structure taking place occasionally.
The District operated under direct congressional jurisdiction through the commissioner era (1874-1967) and the mayor-council-commissioner system from 1967-1973. Home Rule allowed the District to elect a mayor, city council members at-large and in eight wards, continue to elect a board of education and authorized the creation of elected on-the-ground leaders known as advisory neighborhood commissioners. However, Congress still reviews legislation passed by the D.C. Council, and must approve the city budget, even portions generated by local revenue.
King, 83, said he worked in Congress when Home Rule was enacted.
“The head of the District committee in the House was a representative by the name of John McMillan,” he said. “Throughout the years, McMillan blocked every attempt for the city to have more autonomy. So, our newly elected delegate Walter Fauntroy, traveled with others to McMillian’s home district and managed to get him defeated in the primary. With McMillan gone and Detroit congressman Charles Diggs in charge of the District committee, we moved forward with Home Rule.”
Both Pratt and King said racist attitudes among whites in Congress and the strong population of Blacks in the city were the reasons Home Rule came into being and not a statehood-like governing structure.