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January 9, 1991


Appeals from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; Hon. Harriett R. Taylor, Trial Judge

Newman, Ferren, and Farrell, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Farrell

These appeals stem from two consolidated actions for declaratory judgment seeking to invalidate emergency legislation enacted by the Council of the District of Columbia in June 1990. That legislation amended previous laws adopted partly by initiative which granted rights to shelter and housing assistance to homeless individuals and families in the District of Columbia. The Superior Court held the emergency act to be a valid exercise of the Council's legislative powers and denied the motions. In this court, appellants argue first that the Council lacks any power to repeal or substantially amend laws enacted by the electorate through the initiative process, and second, assuming such power, that the Council abused its authority by passing emergency legislation in the absence of any actual emergency. We affirm the decision of the trial court.


In 1984, the voters of the District of Columbia adopted an initiative which became the District of Columbia Right to Overnight Shelter Act of 1984 (Overnight Shelter Act), D.C. Law 5-146, D.C. Code §§ 3-601 to -607 (1988), granting to all persons in the District of Columbia "the right to adequate overnight shelter." D.C. Code § 3-601. In 1987, the Council of the District of Columbia, responding to similar concerns, enacted D.C. Law 7-86, the Emergency Shelter Services for Families Reform Amendment Act of 1987 (the Family Shelter Act), which established a homeless shelter program for eligible homeless families. See D.C. Code § 3-206.3. In 1988, a group of individuals known here as the Atchison plaintiffs brought suit in Superior Court on behalf of single homeless adults challenging the District's failure to comply with D.C. Law 5-146. Following entry of a preliminary injunction against the District, the parties arrived at a consent decree which the court approved in June 1989. In October and December 1989, and in July 1990, the trial court found the District in contempt of the consent decree and imposed daily fines of up to $5,000 for each of multiple types of violations, totaling up to $30,000 per day. As of June 1990, the District had paid nearly $2 million in fines.

In February 1989, members of the Council introduced permanent legislation, Bill 8-156, to make major changes in both the Overnight Shelter Act and the Family Shelter Act. A public hearing was held in April 1989, but the bill did not emerge from committee until May 1990. The committee report cited an "explosion" in costs incurred by the District for homeless shelter programs, partly as a result of court decisions, at the same time that federal support for low- and moderate-income housing had declined. The intent of the bill, therefore, was

to limit specifically and to define clearly the "obligation" of the District of Columbia. . . . Since enactment of this law [the Overnight Shelter Act], the District government has had to spend excessive amounts of appropriated funds for this program because the "Shelter Act" as approved contained no spending constraints in it, and the District has expended millions of dollars on this one program.

Council of the District of Columbia, Committee Report on Bill 8-156, at 14 (May 10, 1990) (Committee Report). Restrictions called for by the bill would prevent judicial "embellishments" and enlargements of existing homeless shelter rights. Id. at 5. *fn1

During the initial reading of Bill 8-156 on June 12, 1990, members of the Council repeatedly expressed concern about the uncontained demands the homeless shelter programs were placing on District funds. Councilmember Crawford, chairman of the committee responsible for the legislation, informed his colleagues that, since 1985, expenditures for homeless shelters had vastly exceeded appropriations. *fn2 He termed the spending "exorbitant" and offered the following explanation for it:

Over the past 3 years the District's emergency shelter program, as a result of Initiative 17 as approved, has been essentially operated by the courts which embellished the law requiring the District to provide certain services and to accomplish certain actions not contemplated by the law because no legislative history was available, forcing the District into unrestrained spending and the payment of over $1.9 million in fines to date.

Other members of the Council expressed similar views.

At its June 26, 1990 session, following second reading of the permanent legislation amending D.C. Laws 5-146 and 7-86, the Council adopted a resolution declaring an emergency *fn3 and enacted D.C. Act 8-226, 37 D.C. Reg. 4674-4675 (1990), the Emergency Act which is the subject of this appeal. The resolution began by noting that the Overnight Shelter Act required the District government "to provide overnight shelter to any homeless person who requests shelter without regard to budgetary limitations o@ the District government." It explained that the Act had been "interpreted by the courts as an entitlement to shelter that includes other requirements that have resulted in the inability of the District to be flexible in the operation of the emergency shelter program"; that the District was currently liable for civil contempt fines amounting to $5,000 per day in the Atchison litigation involving the Overnight Shelter Act; and that litigation enforcing the Family Shelter Act was pending, which required "clarification of the intent of Council" to guide the "imminent" decision in that enforcement proceeding. After pointing out that the Council was expected to pass permanent legislation amending the Overnight Shelter Act but which would not be effective until October 1990, the resolution summarized the present cost of emergency shelter and support services:

It is anticipated that the District will spend $40 million to provide emergency shelter and support services to homeless persons and families in Fiscal Year 1990, including in excess of $2 million in court fines. To date, amounts spent to provide emergency shelter and pay court fines have already exceeded the budget of $23 million that was originally approved by the Council and the Congress.

The resolution further explained that "the District government is experiencing a serious budget crisis brought on by declining revenues and increases in uncontrollable spending." It concluded that unless immediate legislative action were taken to amend the entitlement provision of the Overnight Shelter Act and clarify the Council's intent in the Family Shelter Act, the District would continue to incur fines of more than $5,000 per ...

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