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In recent days the local media (myself included, via WWL-TV) have discussed the New Orleans City Council’s potential lawsuit against Mayor Ray Nagin as taking the form of a writ of mandamus. It’s a term familiar to lawyers, but not to many lay people. Here’s what it means:


Literally, “mandamus” is Latin for “We command.” If a plaintiff convinces a court to issue a writ of mandamus, the court commands a public or private corporation — or one of its officers (in this case, the mayor) — to perform a particular act that is part of that corporation’s or officer’s public, official or ministerial duties. Applied to the council-Nagin feud, the council  may ask a Civil District Court judge to order the mayor to spend money appropriated by the City Council in a manner expressly specified by the council — and to the full extent authorized by the council.


I’m not sure who’s right in this disagreement. Both sides point to legal opinions supporting their claims. At a minimum, the mayor cannot spend money that the council has not first authorized — but that’s not the issue in this debate. In fact the inverse is the problem: the mayor is refusing to spend all the money that the council has appropriated to French Quarter sanitation. Thus, the council may ask a court to order Nagin to spend the entire appropriation. The mayor says there’s not enough money coming in to spend at that level. He adds that the City Charter authorizes him to cut spending in order to keep the city budget in balance.


If nothing else, a court fight will determine who’s on stronger legal ground and set a precedent for this and future administrations and councils.


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