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Washington Lawyer

A Conversation With D.C. Attorney General Linda Singer

From Washington Lawyer, October 2007

Interview By Julie Reynolds

Linda Singer. Photo by Patrice GilbertLinda Singer was appointed by District of Columbia Mayor Adrian M. Fenty to the post of attorney general in January and confirmed by the Council of the District of Columbia in March. Before joining the Office of the Attorney General (OAG), Singer spent 13 years as executive director of Appleseed, a nonprofit organization dealing with social justice issues. As Appleseed’s founding staff member, Singer developed the organization into an 18-office field operation, which included more than 70 staff members and a national budget of more than $7.5 million.

Prior to her work with Appleseed, Singer served as a staff attorney in the Criminal Defense Division of the Legal Aid Society of New York. Singer is a magna cum laude graduate of both Harvard College (BA in 1988) and Harvard Law School (JD in 1991).

What brought you to the Office of the Attorney General? Did you know Mayor Fenty before he offered you the job?
I originally knew Adrian Fenty through my involvement in the public schools. It’s hard to live in the District and not run across Adrian Fenty. My kids are in the D.C. public schools and I had seen him at some public school events. I was impressed, as so many people are, by his energy and commitment and optimism. As importantly, he seemed to have a plan for making the schools and the city better, which is why I supported him and volunteered during his campaign. I certainly was not looking for work and was quite surprised when Mayor Fenty invited me to breakfast and offered me the job.

How have you handled the transition from nonprofit management to attorney general?
The work is different in many ways, but I think there’s a common thread. This job wasn’t something I was looking for, but becoming attorney general was such a great opportunity to do something that mattered in the District and to be engaged in the issues. I’ve been in the District a long time and I’m committed to it.

Has your background influenced the approach you’ve taken to the position?
My job as a defense lawyer and my work with Appleseed probably color my perspective on this work to some extent, and I’ve tried to focus on issues that affect the less fortunate in our city, while making sure we continue to perform our core functions. Although New York City government is very different from our system here, there are similarities that inform my approach to the job: both cities operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and require focus on a broad range of issues, including juvenile justice, a particular interest of mine.

One thing I appreciate is that OAG’s criminal focus is on juvenile issues. There’s a very different perspective to doing juvenile work where the emphasis is on rehabilitation rather than retribution; that is, on how to put these kids back on a better footing and keep them from remaining in the criminal justice system. That’s something that I feel very comfortable with.

I think that because of my background, I also appreciate the system’s concentration on diversion—how do you keep people from getting into the criminal justice system? Once someone is in the system, the available options are not always the best. Afterward, how do you help people on their way out of the system so that they don’t return? These issues impact on many other “quality-of-life” concerns all city residents have, including public education and public safety.

How have you made your mark on the office so far?
I have done some restructuring, though nothing dramatic. I think that the last attorney general, [D.C. Bar President-Elect] Bob Spagnoletti, did a wonderful job over the past few years to improve this office and put it on very solid footing. I think that my job now is to take it from good to great, to build upon that foundation, and to start dreaming about where this office could go. Thankfully, we’re not worried about some of the same things as my predecessors, such as not having computers, or having only rotary phones, and all the other things that impeded the office’s ability to do the job. We will see a fairly significant increase in our budget in 2008, if the mayor’s budget is approved, and that will give us a chance to increase our staff in some important ways. Furthermore, we’ll continue to try to do more with what we have.

Some of the things I’ve focused on are efficiencies in our case management, such as how we can settle cases that ought to be settled early so that we can concentrate on the most complex and defensible cases. I’ve also emphasized risk management and how to keep litigation from coming into the office, which I think is an important part of our job as advocates. It’s a very integral component of our task of vigorously representing the District. Additionally, in our work as counselors, we must step back and determine how to see the forest for the trees and improve what we’re doing so that our advice is creative and thoughtful with the goal of helping our clients get to where they want to be with the programs they administer.

Most importantly, I’ve created two new divisions in the office, which was one of my first priorities when becoming attorney general. Our new public advocacy division will focus all of our affirmative litigation efforts in the areas of consumer protection and antitrust as well as enforcement activities related to nuisance properties, lead paint, and other issues that disproportionately affect some of the poorer residents of the city. This division will give us a platform for greater visibility on the issues that affect all District residents. The other new division will deal with personnel and labor-relations issues for the OAG, and where necessary, the rest of the government. Keep in mind that there are more than 30,000 city employees who are responsible for all the things that make the government run. Mayor Fenty is committed to the best workforce we can possibly have throughout the entire government.

Are you bringing on more staff? What types of candidates are you seeking?
Keep in mind we are an enormous law firm. We have 350 lawyers and we’re looking for people with every level of experience and field of expertise. One of the things we’ve done is launch our Honors Program, which is a vehicle for bringing in recent law graduates and those finishing clerkships. The program will bring on around a half-dozen new attorneys per year. That will be a new opportunity in the future. Overall, there are plenty of opportunities throughout the office. I want OAG to have a prominent national reputation for quality work and its commitment to the city.

Is there more to it than just litigation?
Of course. While litigation is certainly a significant portion of what the office does, we also have important advice-giving responsibilities. Our Legal Counsel Division and our Commercial Division are largely advice-giving parts of the office. They serve all parts of the city government by handling policy and legislative work and most commercial transactions for the District government, including real estate transactions, government contracts, tax, finance and bankruptcy, rulemaking, legislative drafting, and legal analysis of issues of importance to the mayor.

What are the most pressing issues facing OAG in the near future?
Some of it is operational and some of it is programmatic. On the operational side, one of the reasons I created the personnel and labor relations division was to focus on our human capital. Frankly, the development of human capital—the people we have here—will determine whether this office sinks or flies. This initiative includes continuing to recruit the best and the brightest as well as investing in professional development. We do this in the context of the staffing and resource shortages that affect most governments—by doing as much as we can with what we have, by looking to work smarter and more efficiently, and by making sure OAG staff is as well-supported as we can make them.

For example, when Hildebrandt and Appleseed issued their reports on the Office of Corporation Counsel, as the office was known until 2004, we were spending only $300 per staff person on professional development. So we’ve dramatically increased our investment in professional development, which is so important to growing and keeping people. We’ve also instituted several other programs designed to help OAG employees find balance in their work and personal lives, such as flextime, alternate work schedules, and an internal rotation program intended to keep lawyers in the office while they pursue professional development they might otherwise seek by leaving the office.

The office’s affirmative work also is a significant priority. I think this area has not been a place where the office previously has been able to spread its wings. For example, earlier this year the office issued a report on the high cost of being poor. That report was a great way of setting out a position on the issues, and it now gives us an agenda to start moving on enforcement and legislative work.

We’re also making strides in legal fields that the office didn’t really involve itself with in the past, such as environmental issues. Of course, affordable housing is another priority. We’re involved in issues such as dealing with some of the most egregious landlords, getting rid of lead paint, and so on. That will be a significant item on the agenda going forward.

Could you elaborate on OAG’s juvenile work in the family court? How do you work in rehabilitation and diversion?
We certainly have a significant presence in the family court as we operate on two sides of the system. One way OAG is present in the family court is through the abuse and neglect system and child protection. We have lawyers in our child protection sections who handle the cases of children who have been abused or neglected. Additionally, OAG is the juvenile prosecutor for the District.

Juvenile prosecutions are different than adult prosecutions because the system is geared toward rehabilitation of the juveniles. Ultimately, I think the belief is that these kids still can be turned around; it’s in their interest and in the interest of public safety to help make that happen. Keeping this in mind, we do focus on reaching those kids early and to divert them when they come into the system for offenses or when they are involved in something else such as the truancy system. Truancy often is where you get an early warning signal that there are issues either with the young person or with his or her family. In those cases, we have the opportunity to try to put things right. That’s one of our most significant goals. And, there are cases where a young person may have been abused or neglected and he or she is in the juvenile justice system as well. Obviously, these are sensitive cases that require careful coordination to ensure proper handling of the youths involved while avoiding conflicts between the lawyers handling the two sides of these cases.

On the other side of the family court system, we also work in the child support services division. To give you a sense of the magnitude of this problem, there are more kids in the child support system—90,000—than there are in the D.C. public schools. Furthermore, the child support that we collect is a lifeline for families. It brings in about $60 million for families and children in the District. For many families it can mean the difference between staying in their homes, getting medical care, keeping food on the table or going without. This is a situation where OAG can enforce the law—support is an absolute right of all children in the District—and provide the means by which a family can survive financially.

What are OAG’s initiatives in consumer rights, particularly affordable housing?
We’re doing a lot of work in the housing field. One of our areas of responsibility is the affirmative enforcement of all the District laws, which includes consumer rights, environmental protection, health care, and so on.

In the housing field, we have been working over the past few months on the issue of predatory lending, which is of enormous importance nationally. We fear that we’re on the crest of a significant wave of foreclosures in the District because of the recent downturn in the housing market. As a result, we’ve been seeing more and more foreclosure rescue scams, where unscrupulous lenders take advantage of some homeowners’ desperate situation, with the result that many people lose their homes. We’re working on some cases in that area as well as collaborating with the council on some legislative reform to give more protection to homeowners and doing a number of investigations in the field.

We’re also much more aggressively enforcing our housing laws. One of the problems with affordable housing, beyond its availability, is its condition. Much of our low-income housing is older housing and it tends to be full of lead-based paint, which is a terrible hazard to children. So we announced recently a new lead paint enforcement initiative, bringing our first dozen cases against landlords whose buildings have lead-based paint hazards, and where children tenants have been poisoned in those units, and the landlords haven’t taken care of the problem. We hope that will send a message to landlords to deal with the issue. That will certainly be a continued focus of our work as well as housing conditions more generally. That’s some of what we’re doing in the area.

Is there an option of bringing criminal charges against these landlords?
We’ll always evaluate whether criminal remedies are appropriate. So far we’ve had to go to court in most of the cases because the landlords haven’t responded to an earlier notice which should have, one would hope, encouraged them to take care of the problem themselves. However, once we do get them in court, the landlords have consented to abatement orders. So, we’ll wait and see to make sure that they do it. Certainly, if there’s a pattern of not complying with court orders and commitments, we’ll evaluate the possibility of criminal charges.

How is OAG involved in the District’s legislative process?
In this area, we are often asked to review legislation, assist with its drafting, and then analyze it for legal sufficiency. This means we opine on the lawfulness of most bills submitted to the council, so that its proponents can make any changes or adjustments they deem necessary. This is particularly interesting work because the council recently has moved a lot of cutting-edge legislation. One of the cases we argued this year was on the legality of a bill seeking to restrict markups on prescription drug prices. This presented a very interesting legal issue (relating to the legal authority of states or the District to regulate businesses that are part of interstate commerce) that we argued in the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. We do the front end and the back end—providing advice on laws before they’re passed and then defending them if challenged.

What are your plans for the lawsuit involving the District’s gun control statute?
We have announced our intention to file a petition for certiorari to the United States Supreme Court. We hope that the Supreme Court will take the case. It’s an enormously significant case; what’s more, the court has not taken a Second Amendment case since the 1930s. We’re focused on getting this case in front of the Supreme Court right now.

Do you agree that gun control, in principle, makes citizens safer?
I think that the data are unequivocal on this point: the tremendous risks from handguns in the home are to children who fire them accidentally; to the victims of domestic violence, who are disproportionately victimized by handguns; and to suicides. Interestingly, one result of our gun control law has been a significant decrease in our rate of suicide, which is unmatched in neighboring jurisdictions. Finally, there’s always the risk that handguns pose to ordinary citizens and police officers who could find themselves on the wrong end of a gun for any number of reasons that never justify their use.

I understand that it is a strongly held belief by many that gun control increases crime, but the public safety and law enforcement groups are very clear that handguns are dangerous, period.

What has OAG done in terms of disaster preparedness?
In fact, I recently asked that we update our disaster preparedness plan it in light of recent events. One thing about disaster preparedness is that it’s not something that you take care of and then check off your list. There are always new threats that you must evaluate. So, for instance, in the wake of the shootings at Virginia Tech, we’re looking at school security and safety. I don’t think disaster preparedness is something you ever get to finish. More importantly, our emergency preparedness plans must be fully integrated into the plans of the other city agencies and that of the government as a whole. All are—and should be—interlocking pieces of a scheme that would, in an emergency, deliver vital services to city residents and keep the core operations of the government running.

How are you looking at school safety? Checking the legality of public school plans?
It’s not really that issue. One of our advantages is that we’re part of the National Association of Attorneys General, which is a great resource to us as we grapple with issues that have a national common denominator. This organization convened a study group after Virginia Tech to look at the lessons learned from that event. What does it tell us concerning laws on access to weapons by people with mental illness, or the kind of information sharing that’s appropriate for the mentally ill? School security plans, communication with the public and law enforcement, and so many other issues were in play. Those are the aspects that we’ve focused on in that area and it’s an ongoing conversation. Given the mayor’s commitment to the public schools, we can all reasonably anticipate that school security for all students in the District is and will be paramount and we work to better our public school system.

Do you think most District citizens understand the role of the OAG?
No, absolutely not. Remember, we’re an unusual office because of the state, county, and local responsibilities we’ve historically had. And, remember that, until several years ago, we were called the Office of the Corporation Counsel, a name that often added to the confusion. We have all the responsibilities of a state attorney general’s office, with the affirmative work and state-level functions. Along with that we have the municipal job of bond finance and commercial transactions and tort defense and other kinds of city work. Additionally, we’re the child support agency for the District of Columbia, which takes up a third of the office’s staff and budget. I think we have such a big footprint, and such an unique one, that it would be difficult for most people to intuitively grasp what we do.

Does OAG have pro bono opportunities for private lawyers?
Absolutely. We recently met with many of the large D.C. firms and provided them with information about what the office does and how they could get involved. We currently have several law firms involved in our rotation program and hope to increase that number significantly. This is a great way for associates and law firms to come work with us and get hands-on litigation experience. We guarantee that lawyers who participate in our rotation program will get to try a case while they’re here.

On the one hand, it’s a great way for us to share the wealth of work that we have. But it’s also a wonderful opportunity for associates to get experience that they might not otherwise get at their law firms. Even relatively new lawyers will get the chance to be on their feet litigating. For example, I think that every one of the associates from Fulbright & Jaworski L.L.P. has had a trial. Our WilmerHale LLP lawyers have covered arraignment calendars of hearings in the juvenile court. They’ve had a terrific experience and been invaluable to this office.

We’ve also got another half-dozen projects that we’ve placed on an as-needed basis, from help in defending the mayor’s new school governance legislation to research on the implications of immigration status for some of the children in foster care.

What does your office need most from the D.C. legal community?
This is an extraordinary time for the District in so many ways. There are so many exciting and important issues swirling about right now, from voting rights to governance of the schools. Going along with that is, I think, an enormous feeling of optimism across the District. It’s a great time for people to roll up their sleeves, to get involved, and know that they’re making a contribution.

What we need most is for people to get involved, in our rotation program or with a pro bono project. The Office of the Attorney General also is a great place for lawyers to come work. We’ve seen a great crop of lawyers come in at every level of their careers, from people who’ve had long experience in firms and are looking to do something different before they retire, to people right out of law school or who are in their first years of practice, and everything in between. We would love for more people to come and work here. It’s an incredibly challenging, always interesting, place to work.

I don’t think people in the District of Columbia have any idea what a dynamic office this is, the caliber of the people here, and the interest level of our work. Whether it’s the District’s gun control case, or the work we do on lead paint and consumer issues, or children’s issues, or criminal justice, the work we do here is challenging, meaningful, and always interesting.

That has been a great joy about coming here.

District of Columbia Bar staff writer Julie Reynolds can be reached at jreynolds@ dcbar.org.