House delegate wants D.C. workers exempted from Hatch Act

District of Columbia employees could run for office in partisan elections under a new bill introduced by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C.

Norton introduced H.R. 4617 on April 29, one month after a District of Columbia public school teacher, Tom Briggs, was fired for running as a Statehood Green Party candidate in the 2000 city council elections. The 1939 Hatch Act prohibits employees who work for the federal government from running as candidates in partisan elections or soliciting political contributions. In 1993, Congress amended the act to relax some of its restrictions, but added a provision making the law applicable to District of Columbia teachers.

The Office of Special Counsel warned Briggs to withdraw from the race or resign from the school system, but he refused, saying the Hatch Act is unconstitutional because it applies to D.C. teachers but not to teachers in the 50 states.

OSC forwarded the case to the Merit Systems Protection Board, which ruled in March that Briggs should be fired for violating the law. Briggs filed a petition for review of the MSPB decision in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. That decision is pending.

According to Norton, her bill would make it possible for Briggs and other District employees to participate in the political process without being hindered by "undemocratic and discriminatory" laws.

"The Briggs termination is one more way in which the District faces discrimination from the federal government," Norton said. "This case demands the stand-alone bill I introduced … to remove Hatch Act discrimination he has faced and that threatens and chills the rights of every D.C. employee as well."

H.R. 4617 would remove all provisions in the Hatch Act that apply only to the District of Columbia and would specifically exempt D.C. teachers. The bill would be retroactive to the year 2000 to allow Briggs to continue teaching.

Briggs filed a petition with MSPB asking that he be able to continue working until the appeals court rules on his case. Briggs is a teacher at Dunbar High School in Washington.

"That motion or petition is pending with the board right now and is being reviewed," said MSPB spokesman Michael Hoxie. "We're obviously going to try and deal with that as quickly as we can."

In an April 26 letter to the MSPB's acting chairman, Susanne Marshall, Norton also asked that Briggs be allowed to continue working until his case was settled in appeals court.

"I believe that it is in your discretion to act in the best interests of the students at Dunbar High School, and I ask you to do so as soon as possible," she said. "To remove Mr. Briggs from his classroom does harm not only to the students at Dunbar, but to the D.C. public school system, which has a shortage of teachers."

Norton is an alumna of Dunbar High School.