Jonetta Rose Barras: Legal representative of the people?

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras

The request to Attorney General Irvin Nathan from Peter MacPherson, a Ward 6 resident, parent and public education advocate, seemed simple: Could the AG provide an opinion about whether DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson's redefining of a small school was legal?

"This fall 61.4 percent of schools in DCPS would be classified as small under [the] new definition," wrote MacPherson, adding that would mean large numbers of students "would be denied parity of academic opportunity." He said he thought unequal allocation of resources would violate Title V of the DC Code of Municipal Regulation. "I think the practice may be illegal under federal law as well."

"Our office does not render legal opinions to private citizens," Nathan responded, suggesting his office was prohibited from providing such a service.

Despite multiple requests from me, Nathan never cited any specific District law, rule or regulation that imposed such a prohibition. "There are, as you know, tens of thousands of private lawyers in the District who can and do provide legal opinions to private citizens," he wrote, attaching a summary description of OAG services from the 2014 budget book.

Interestingly, that book noted the AG's Public Interest Division is responsible, among other things, for providing "enforcement, protection, representation and advisory services to the District government and residents so that they can enjoy reduced risk of harm [and] protection of rights."

So why didn't Nathan offer even a cursory review of the law for MacPherson?

The AG has the resources: More than 600 lawyers and other professionals work in Nathan's shop, according to published documents. The office's proposed 2014 budget is $102 million. District taxpayers, like MacPherson, provide $80 million of the AG's budget, which might entitle them to more than a brushoff.

In 2010, District voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the city's Home Rule Charter, changing the AG's post from appointed to elected, effective in 2015. Over the past several weeks, the D.C. Council and Mayor Vincent C. Gray have debated the powers and authority of an elected AG. Unsurprisingly, Nathan has advocated the mayor retain prime control, denying the elected representative supremacy and resources.

During Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's administration, some legislators accused then-AG of acting as if he were the executive's general counsel -- not the attorney for the entire city, including its citizens. Nathan apparently suffers a similar affliction.

Residents certainly don't get much respect.

Consider his response to the lawsuit filed by several residents attempting to prevent the closure of 15 schools: "The plaintiffs," Nathan wrote, "have no injury with respect to schools they do not attend, therefore no standing."

That may be a typical legal argument. But should the city's AG make it against District residents?

Public education should be the interest of every citizen. Elected and appointed officials should encourage -- not discourage -- their involvement. Further, the proposed budget for public schools -- charters and traditional -- for fiscal 2014 is $1.5 billion. Local taxpayers would provide almost all of that amount -- $1.3 billion.

What's the price of "standing"?

Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Tuesday and Friday. She can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

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