Budget autonomy plaintiff Phil Mendelson
Budget autonomy plaintiff Phil Mendelson

The fight over the District’s budget autonomy went to U.S. District Court this morning, with Judge Emmet G. Sullivan considering whether the provision, approved in a referendum last year, is legal.

The lawsuit, initiated by D.C. Council chairman Phil Mendelson, seeks to force Vince Gray and Chief Financial Officer Jeff DeWitt to abide by the terms of the voter measure.

If the Council’s side succeeds, the District’s budget won’t require congressional approval. Instead, it can only be disapproved by Congress, just like any other District law. In court, attorney general Irv Nathan repeated his earlier arguments that the budget autonomy process is illegal.

Attorney Karen L. Dunn, representing the Council pro bono, argued that the District has always had the legal right to declare budget autonomy without congressional approval.

“The District has earned its right to budget autonomy, and it has demonstrated that this would be appropriate,” Dunn said.

Sullivan promised a ruling shortly, with the Council’s budget votes (or vote, if Nathan and Gray’s schedule prevails in court) set to start later this month. Still, he sounded less than convinced that the District could unilaterally declare budget autonomy under the terms of the 1973 home rule charter.

“Why has it taken 40 years to make this argument?” Sullivan said.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery