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News

Legislators, Lawyers Discuss D.C. Statehood at Bar Event

By Richard Blaustein

February 14, 2020

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The D.C. Bar District of Columbia Affairs Community hosted the program “D.C. Statehood: Prospects for H.R. 51” on February 13, featuring (from left to right) attorneys James Bubar and Jon Bouker as moderators, former Virginia congressman Tom Davis, D.C. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, and Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin.

On February 13, two days after the House Committee on Oversight and Reform passed the Washington, D.C. Admission Act (H.R. 51), the D.C. Bar District of Columbia Affairs Community hosted a discussion on the latest prospects for turning the nation’s capital into the 51st state.

Held at Arent Fox LLP, the event featured Reps. Eleanor Holmes Norton and Jamie Raskin, as well as former Virginia Republican Congressman Tom Davis. Attorneys James Bubar and Jon Bouker, District of Columbia Affairs Community members who have been involved in the D.C. statehood effort, served as moderators.

The panelists touched on efforts in the courts to grant the District full citizenship, but they agreed that the political route in Congress appears most promising. Norton told the audience that the committee vote on H.R. 51, which she introduced and now has 223 cosponsors, signifies that “we are on our way.”

Norton said the District had to “make a point with the bill, 219 years after we should have had the same rights as other Americans,” by enlisting an unusually high number of cosponsors to pass it. Norton is optimistic that the bill will get a full House vote in 2020.

Delaware Sen. Tom Carper has introduced a parallel bill in the Senate, currently with 35 cosponsors. But with Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell leading the Senate, proponents of D.C. statehood do not expect fulfillment in 2020 of their longstanding efforts.

Davis, who represented Virginia’s 11th congressional district and introduced a bill granting the District a House vote in 2006, applauded Norton’s efforts on H.R. 51, but added that ultimately “the Senate and partisanship on this remains a huge, huge issue.” Davis said one particular challenge will be what to do with the 23rd Amendment granting the District electors in the Electoral College.

Norton and Raskin, Democrat congressman from Maryland’s 8th district, said that while it would require a process, they believe the 23rd Amendment would ultimately be eliminated successfully. Raskin explained that Congress enforces the 23rd Amendment by statute, which could be repealed before a full reversal of the amendment.

On whether a constitutional amendment is needed for the District to become a state, Raskin said that has never been the case with the other states. “The 37 states that have been admitted to join the original 13 have all been admitted under Congress’s exclusive plenary power under Article IV to admit new states,” Raskin said.

In an interview after the event, District of Columbia Affairs Community co-chair Sally Kram highlighted some of the statehood issues of particular concern for D.C. lawyers. With H.R. 51 advancing in the House, Kram said there will be adjustments for law practices in the District if statehood is achieved.

“The D.C. legal community suddenly comes under the authority of a D.C. state bar,” Kram said. Criminal law matters, which are prosecuted solely by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, would fall under the authority of a state attorney general. “That’s a big change for the bar,” Kram said.

Raskin, in a separate interview, talked about the essence of the constitutional argument for D.C. statehood. “The national government is deciding everything without the participation of representatives of the people in Washington, D.C.,” Raskin said. “It is deciding questions of war and peace, it is deciding questions of federal spending, it is deciding questions of impeachment, questions relating to consumer and financial regulation, you name it. At the same time, there is no safety for democratic self-government in the District as long as Congress gets to be the boss and the people aren’t even fully represented in Congress.”