News & Politics

Last-Ditch Push to Hold DC Attorney General Election Might Run Out of Time

A judge was receptive to attorney Paul Zukerberg's case to hold an election for DC attorney general, but the ultimate determination could come down to the calendar.

Photograph courtesy of Paul Zukerberg.

It’s still uncertain if District residents will get to elect an attorney general for the first time next year, but lawyer Paul Zukerberg is proceeding with his campaign for the office for now, even though the election might still be called off.

“I’m running to win and be the attorney general,” Zukerberg said outside US District Court after making his case for an injunction against a DC Council bill to delay the election until 2018. Zukerberg is arguing that under an amendment to the District’s Home Rule Charter approved by voters in 2010, the District will begin electing its top lawyer in 2014.

Zukerberg’s critical evidence is the difference in the language of the amendment and the question that actually appeared on the 2010 ballot. The amendment, as written into the charter, merely states that the attorney general election will happen after January 1, 2014. The actual question, however, was more specific: “If voters approve of this amendment and the US Congress does not reject the measure, residents of the District of Columbia would begin voting for the Attorney General in 2014.”

Assistant Attorney General Keith Parsons, defending the District, argued that voters should have gone by the DC Board of Elections’s 2010 voter guide, which included the amendment in full, and not the question printed on ballots. Judge James E. Boasberg was not impressed with the city’s political machinery when hearing this.

“Someone did a lousy job here,” he said. “Either the Council did a lousy job writing the act, or the Board of elections did a lousy job interpreting it. Don’t you have a situation in which the voters are misled?”

Although Boasberg was skeptical of the DC government’s argument in favor of a four-year delay, his biggest question was whether the case even belonged in his federal courtroom. Zukerberg, before he was a candidate, filed his case last month in DC Superior Court while the District moved to have it heard at the federal level. Zukerberg announced his campaign on Monday, a move the District’s lawyers called late-submitted evidence.

Even if the case is a “slam dunk on the merits,” as Zukerberg’s pro bono lawyer, Gary Thompson, said, there might not be enough time to guarantee the attorney general election survives. The window to collect the 2,000 signatures needed for ballot access begins tomorrow, with petitions due back January 2, but between now and that deadline, the Council’s election-delaying bill will go through congressional review, which is unlikely to happen before mid-December.

Boasberg said he intends to make a ruling by the end of next week, and he could issue an injunction against the Council’s bill to push back the attorney general race. More likely, though, he will kick the case back down to DC courts or determine he has to wait until the bill goes through congressional review. Either situation would compress Zukerberg’s time as a candidate aiming to return valid ballot petitions by the January 2 deadline.

For now, though, Zukerberg is going ahead with his campaign, saying he’ll be out in Columbia Heights this weekend collecting signatures.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.