The Case for D.C. Statehood (ep. 54)

July 4, 2019
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Hundreds of thousands of Washington, D.C. residents currently lack full political representation. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents them in the House of Representatives, is currently leading an initiative to make the District of Columbia the 51st state.

EMERSON SYKES:
[00:00:05] From the ACLU, this is At Liberty. I'm Emerson Sykes, a staff attorney here at the ACLU and your host. This week's guest is Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton who represents the people of Washington D.C. in the House of Representatives. She's currently leading an initiative to make the District of Columbia the 51st state. Her bill, H.R. 51, has 211 co-sponsors and is scheduled for a hearing on July 24. This fight for statehood is only the latest in a long line of civil rights battles waged by Congresswoman Norton. In the late 1960s, she was Assistant Legal Director at the ACLU. Since then, she's been a law professor at NYU and Georgetown, led the New York City Human Rights Commission, and chaired the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, among many other roles over more than six decades in public service. She’s served in Congress since 1991.

Congresswoman Norton, it's an honor and a pleasure to have you on the show. Thanks very much for taking the time to speak with us.

REP. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON:
Pleased to be with you.

EMERSON:
I'd like to start with D.C. statehood. On a basic level, how on earth is it that D.C. residents are not represented by a voting member in Congress? Many Americans have no idea that this is the case.

NORTON:
Well as we close in on a House vote where we almost have enough members as I speak to pass it, we are reminded of the anomaly that most Americans think we have the same rights they do and don't even know that the 700,000 people who in the nation's capital do not have a full voting right in the House of Representatives, although I do vote on the floor on some matters. And they do not know that the residents of the nation's capital have no senators whatsoever. This goes back 218 years to the beginning of our country not because the framers intended it that way, but because of accidents of history that have made it happen that way. And now we're catching up pretty rapidly, considering how long we've gone without being treated as full and equal American residents.

EMERSON:
[00:02:26] Well, I'm curious to hear more about what the lack of representation means for people on an everyday basis who live and work in the district.

NORTON:
Not having the same rights as those who live in the states means, for example, that the Congress of the United States can dabble into the business of the District of Columbia. Because this is a progressive jurisdiction, when the House and Senate are in the hands of Republicans, they lob a lot of their versions of dynamite, trying to blow up various pieces of legislation in the District of Columbia.

It is my job now, to defend the District against that kind of interference. It has meant that without having statehood not only do you not have full representation, but you have to abide incursions even into the self-government that you now have. If you don't agree with what happens in New York State or the state of Michigan or California, there's nothing you can do about it. If you don't agree with the progressive laws of the District of Columbia, you can try to get them overturned in the Congress of the United States. Normally, that does not happen because I've been able to develop defenses against that, but why should I have to spend a good deal of my time simply defending local laws when I've been here-- sent here to get laws passed at the national level.

EMERSON:
[00:04:02] Well and if H.R. 51 did in fact pass, or does in fact pass, what will it do? What will be the impact?

NORTON:
Well if H.R. 51 passes both houses, it will make the District a state and mean that no interference into the local affairs or in any way with the people who live here can occur.

EMERSON:
Well, you mentioned all the ways in which Congress can infringe upon the independence of the district. Can you give us an example of an issue where Congress had tried to push back against a local rule?

NORTON:
Well, the legalization of marijuana, which has occurred in 10 states, is one example. The District of Columbia would make 11, and the Republican House has, until this year, succeeded in- over- keeping that from becoming law through introduction of what we call a “rider” onto the D.C. appropriation which has to come here for approval even though it has nothing to do with the business of the House.

This year, with Democrats in control, we've been able to get that interference off of the District of Columbia, so that what 10 states have done to legalize marijuana can also happen here. When marijuana is not legalized, the chief effect in most states is that the only people get picked up are African Americans. Others are able to be where police aren’t potentially looking. Police patrol African American communities and thus make African Americans particularly vulnerable to being picked up on a charge.

And another one that has gone, perhaps the most difficult one, is the District has been kept from spending its own money on abortions for poor women.

EMERSON:
Wow.

NORTON:
[00:05:54] There are almost 20 states that spend their own money in this way, not asking the federal government for money. That has been critical to the District of Columbia as well. Those are the two remaining ones. There have been others that I've been able to get off simply by fighting and usually able to, by the time a bill gets to the Senate, which cares less often than the House about these riders, to get them taken off.

EMERSON:
That's a really dramatic example especially with so many opponents of abortion rights saying that this should be a locally decided issue, for the District of Columbia residents, that's not even a possibility.

There's also a case that's pending, Castanen, which challenges the constitutionality of denying D.C. residents the right to have voting representatives in Congress. So it seems as though even as you're making a lot of progress with H.R. 51, you're also pushing through other advocacy avenues as well including in the courts.

NORTON:
And the reason for that is that you try more than one avenue at a time, so we have a series bill, called the D.C. Equal Opportunity Series because the District's home rule isn't completely filled out yet. Yes, the mayor and the city council to run the city. But why should our budget come here at all, just so it can be used as a vehicle to overturn laws that Republican members of Congress disagree with. That's a home rule issue. That's not a statehood issue. To be sure, statehood would make it impossible to intervene into the local affairs. But the district was granted Home Rule in 1973, long before I got to Congress by the way. That historic bill actually that gave the District mayor and City Council control over its own city and away from the Congress of the United States.

EMERSON:
[00:07:51] Well, you mentioned home rule and the possibility of statehood, and I'm struck by the idea that you are truly unique within Congress with this different sort of playing field that you're navigating. What's it like to be a delegate in Congress that is in such a unique position?

NORTON:
Well it's not really that different. The organization which ranks members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans, the so-called Center for Effective Lawmaking, just this past year ranked me the most effective Democratic member of the House. And noted that this ranking occurred even though this member does not have the final vote on the House floor. The ranking is based on your ability to get legislation passed that affects your jurisdiction. So I don't want to sit here and say well, I guess I there’s nothing I can do for my residents. Because I think I’ve shown that I can find ways around the failure to recognize the democratic rights of the residents I represent. On the other hand, there are some things that I simply cannot do without legislation such as H.R. 51, and I'm sure that your listeners will recognize 51 to mean the 51st state.

EMERSON:
Well it's quite an impressive record in Congress and the people of DC are very lucky to have you. And it brings to mind some of the other disenfranchised American citizens in different ways. Are there similar initiatives underway for other U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico, Guam, or American Samoa that also lack representation in Congress?

NORTON:
[00:09:37] Well, not really. In Puerto Rico there have been bills to keep it a Commonwealth on the one hand or make it a state on the other, so Puerto Ricans haven't agreed as to their status. But there’s a major difference between the territories and the District of Columbia, and why the territories you do not see running to Congress to say, “Give us statehood.” That difference is that the territories do not pay full and equal federal income taxes. The District of Columbia not only does that but it ranks number one per capita in taxes paid to support the government of the United States. You can see why there would be special outrage here. We have the worst of both worlds. We have to pay federal income taxes and we're not treated as a state.

EMERSON:
Well the situation in D.C. is indeed outrageous and so we wish you the best with H.R. 51 and all the other ways in which you're trying to get full democracy for D.C. residents.
I would be remiss if I didn't ask you a question about your time at the ACLU. You were here from 1965 to 70 when there were only a handful of staff and now we have over a thousand staff nationwide. And I'm curious what it was like to be at an organization like the ACLU fighting those fights in the late 60s.

NORTON:
Well the ACLU gave me some of the best opportunities as a young lawyer that I think any lawyer could have, especially fresh out of law school. Actually there were only two lawyers at the ACLU, and here I speak of the National ACLU because although I am a native Washingtonian I lived in New York and was married to a New Yorker at that time.

I worked for the ACLU when Mel Wolf and I were the only two lawyers. I was Assistant Legal Director, what else could I be because there were only two of us in the first place, and I got to argue before the Supreme Court and to win an important free speech case before the Supreme Court. So I will always credit ACLU with letting me do whatever I could do and helping me to advance my career. After that I became chair of the New York City Commission on Human Rights and ultimately chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. So in a real sense it was my beginning at ACLU as Assistant Legal Director that gave me the confidence to move to where I am today as a member of Congress. So I’ll forever be grateful to the ACLU for the opportunities they gave me.

EMERSON:
[00:12:19] And the case you argued was not just any case. It was, in 1968 you argued the Princess Anne’s County case where the National States Rights Party, which is a white supremacist group, held a rally one night. No violence occurred but there were certainly exchanges between the demonstrators and the counter protesters. And then when the group tried to reconvene the following evening, the local municipality blocked them from marching, and you argued that this was a prior restraint and unconstitutional, and your arguments won the day. But I can only imagine what it was like as a young black woman, a young attorney working on behalf of ACLU, defending the rights of the National States Party. So can you just tell us what the decision was like to take that case and how it felt for you to argue it?

NORTON:
I'll never forget, I went to argue with the Supreme Court here in Washington in a blue dress. At that time, women were wearing their dresses short. And I wore that dress straight into the Supreme Court.

And Thurgood Marshall was on the court then, had not been long on the court then. And the case I argued, to be sure, was for people with whom I could not have been most in disagreement. They used racial epithets.

[00:13:36] But the reason that we had had free speech, continue to have free speech, particularly as African Americans, is because nobody could keep us from speaking. They could keep us from using the same facilities, they could keep us from voting. But the First Amendment said that everybody can talk. It turns out that free speech is most important to those who have the least in our society. So what’s the best way to make that point? Represent those who have the most in society. This was a group of white men, who felt quite entitled to degradate African Americans and to use their free speech to do so. Finally, let me tell you, they could not get over their gratitude at being represented by me. I told them not to worry, it was a special privilege.

EMERSON:
And what do you think has been the legacy of the case you won in the Supreme Court?

NORTON:
Well the ACLU ‘s willingness to fight for what are called civil liberties and amount to Constitutional rights even if they could not disagree more with what they stand for, is what separates our country from others. Most countries do not have written Constitutions. We have had a written Constitution from the beginning but very flawed practices. We have corrected those practices in no small part by being able to go to court. If we can go to court, then people who disagree with us must be able to go to court.

I gave a graduation speech last year to young lawyers, people graduating from law school. I had read that young people were disinclined to believe people on the other side, who were wrong on the issues as far as they were concerned, ought to have the same rights to speak out about those wrongs, that it really hurt to hear that speech. And I decided that in speaking with young lawyers, that I should tell them that given where they are on the issues with their generation, that they were in a special position to make the case for the First Amendment.

EMERSON:
[00:16:04] Well it’s a really powerful message. And now, the last question, for those of us who haven't been fighting for civil rights for six decades, how do you keep your drive going? And how do you advise younger folks in the movement to maintain their enthusiasm?

NORTON:
What makes me optimistic is to see the sense to which young people are simply stepping up and taking the posture that only young people can take. When I joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, back at those days when I went into Mississippi, I recognized that my ability to do what my elders wouldn’t do really had to do with the fact that I really didn’t have many responsibilities: I didn’t have any children, I wasn’t married. Therefore, young people are able to use their very youth to move out in front before they have the kind of responsibilities that will come later, therefore they can take the risks. And I think that this generation is showing they’re willing to do so.

EMERSON:
Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton thank you so, so much for taking the time to speak with us today.

NORTON:
It's been a pleasure.

EMERSON:
Thanks very much for listening. If you enjoyed this conversation, please be sure to subscribe to At Liberty wherever you get your podcasts and rate and review the show. We really appreciate the feedback.

‘Til next week, peace.

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