News & Politics

Judge Will Decide Whether DC Will Hold Attorney General Election

Defense lawyer Paul Zukerberg’s case to keep the attorney general election on the ballot could be doomed after a hearing today.

Photograph courtesy Paul Zukerberg.

Paul Zukerberg, the lawyer suing the District government to put an attorney general election on this year’s ballot, had a difficult time convincing a judge Thursday morning that he was “irreparably harmed” by the DC Council’s move last year to delay the election until 2018.

District residents voted overwhelmingly in 2010 in favor of an amendment to the city’s charter changing the attorney general job from a mayoral appointment to an elected position. But amid confusion over how the question was phrased, which of the city’s lawyers would report to an elected attorney general, and a dearth of candidates, the Council last summer voted to put the election off until 2018.

Zukerberg, a defense attorney who lost a special election for a Council seat in 2013, sued to overturn the delay law and later announced his own candidacy for the AG’s job. Zukerberg has collected more than enough signatures to qualify for the Democratic primary, but no one else has entered the race, a fact that was not lost on Judge Laura A. Cordero of DC Superior Court.

“Your candidate is the only candidate and is generally unopposed,” the judge remarked to Zukerberg’s pro bono attorney, Gary Thompson.

Both Zukerberg and the District are running out of time on this case. The DC Board of Elections needs to send its primary ballots to the printer tomorrow in order to reach absentee voters in time for the April 1 primary. “The sooner this is stopped, the better,” an attorney for the District argued.

But Thompson repeated the argument he made last November before a federal judge, saying that while the full text of the amendment stated that the District would start electing attorneys general after January 1, 2014, the question put before voters in 2010 explicitly stated an election would occur this year: “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,” it read.

“We believe the only interpretation is for the election to be in 2014,” Thompson said today. “The DC Council does not have the authority to override the charter amendment.”

With primary ballots scheduled to go to the printer, Cordero said she will rule by Friday. But given her repeated questions about whether Zukerberg and voters would be deeply hurt by having to wait until 2018 for an attorney general election, Zukerberg’s case seems like a long shot now. If she approves the District’s motion to dismiss Zukerberg’s case, any hopes of holding an attorney general election this year will hinge on appeals or more legislation that puts the seat on the general election ballot in November.

Outside the courtroom, Thompson did not want to weigh in on Cordero’s leanings, but he had more sharp words for the Council.

“Shame on them,” he said. “They pretend to be champions of democracy when it comes to federal voting rights, but when it comes before them they have failed the people.”

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.