Holder Offers Strong Support For Hate Crimes Legislation

WASHINGTON (Thursday, June 25, 2009) – Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday, Attorney General Eric Holder expressed the administration’s strong support for the enactment of the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act, legislation that would make needed changes to the federal hate crime law.

Holder returned to the Senate Judiciary Committee just one week after appearing for a Department of Justice oversight hearing.  Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), responding to requests from Committee Republicans, moved swiftly to schedule the Thursday hearing on the need for legislation.  The bipartisan Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act was introduced on April 28 by former Committee Chairman Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).  More than 40 Senators are cosponsors of the legislation.  The House of Representatives adopted a similar measure in April. 

At a Department of Justice oversight hearing on June 17, Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) requested that the Committee hold a hearing on the legislation.  Hate crime legislation has been pending in Congress for more than a decade.

An archived webcast will be available later today.  Witness testimony and member statements are available online.

The full text of Leahy’s opening remarks follows.

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Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.),
Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee,
Hearing On “The Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act Of 2009”
June 25, 2009 

Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee addresses the serious and growing problem of hate crimes.  Recent events have made clear that these vicious crimes are a continuing problem.  The Senate has before it bipartisan legislation that would help law enforcement respond to this problem, and this legislation has stalled for far too long.  The time to act is now. 

The Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act has been pending in the Senate for more than a decade.  We have held previous hearings on this bill and the House has held many hearings on it.  Both the House and Senate have voted for this bill, again and again.  Nonetheless, when the Ranking Rebublican Member requested a hearing on this legislation at last week’s oversight hearing, I proceeded expeditiously to accommodate his request.  I thank, in particular, the Attorney General for his willingness to return to the Committee just days after our oversight hearing in order to testify on this important legislative priority.   

Two weeks ago, just blocks away from this hearing room a man entered the National Holocaust Memorial Museum and shot and killed Stephen T. Johns, a security guard.  The cowardly action of this white supremacist resulted in the death of a 39-year-old husband and the father of an 11-year-old son.  This tragic murder is just the latest in an alarming string of hate crimes.

No doubt the courageous actions of officer Johns and his fellow guards saved dozens of lives. I regret that as a private security guard protecting a Federal facility he was without a bulletproof vest, which may have saved his life. 

The facts set out in several recent reports show how hate crimes and hate groups are growing nationwide.  Just last week, the Leadership Conference for Civil Rights released a report on hate crimes that found that “the number of hate crimes reported has consistently ranged around 7,500 or more annually, or nearly one every hour of the day.”  Similarly, a recent report from the Southern Poverty Law Center found that hate groups have increased by 50 percent since 2000, from 602 hate groups in 2000, to 926 in 2008.  Last Saturday 2,000 mourners filled the Ebenezer AME Church and heard Reverend John McCoy say: “The hope of the Holocaust museum was that the world would never again allow such crimes against humanity.  Yet Officer Johns is another victim… .”  As mourners of many faiths and backgrounds listened, Reverend Grainger Browning, Jr. said “the same hate that created slavery was the same hate that caused the Holocaust.”

The sight of stray bullet holes covering the door of the National Holocaust Museum was a jarring reminder right here in Washington that our country must do more.  The time to act against violence motivated by bias and by hatred is now.

From the horrific slayings of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. during the 1990s to the recent tragic murder of Louis Ramirez last year, it has long been clear that we must do more to protect all Americans from these crimes.  The answer to hate and bigotry has to ultimately be found in increased respect and tolerance for all our citizens.  In the meantime, strengthening our Federal hate crimes legislation to give law enforcement the tools they need is a necessary step.

I commend Senator Kennedy for his leadership in this effort over many years.  I am proud to be a cosponsor of the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009.  This bipartisan legislation improves existing law by making it easier for Federal authorities to investigate and prosecute crimes of racial or religious violence.  It focuses the attention and resources of the Federal Government on the problem of crimes committed against people because of their sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability, which is a long-overdue protection.  The bill also provides assistance and resources to state, local, and tribal law enforcement to address hate crimes.

Last Congress, this legislation was attached to the Department of Defense Authorization bill with the bipartisan support of 60 Senators.   I was disappointed that the hate crime provision was taken out of that bill at conference, but I hope that Senators on both sides of the aisle can work together this year and help us to finally enact this bipartisan civil rights measure into law.

This year’s Senate bill makes some modest changes requested by federal law enforcement to ensure that the hate crimes laws work as effectively as possible.  We have worked closely with the Justice Department to ensure that we are advancing a bill that is fair, constitutional, and effective in cracking down on brutal acts of hate-based violence.

This bill would strengthen Federal jurisdiction over hate crimes to support, but not to substitute for, State and local law enforcement, which I appreciate as a former State prosecutor.  It strengthens State and local law enforcement and has received strong support from State and local law enforcement organizations across the country. 

This legislation would combat acts of violence motivated by hatred and bigotry, but it does not target pure speech, however offensive or disagreeable, and it certainly does not target religious speech.  This bill was carefully crafted to respect constitutional limits and differences of opinion. 

This week we commemorate the 45th anniversary of perhaps the most famous hate crime in recent memory, the day three civil rights workers in Mississippi paid the ultimate price in the struggle to secure civil rights and expand our democracy for all Americans.  On June 21, 1964, these three young men were abducted, brutally beaten, and shot to death by Ku Klux Klansmen for simply attempting to register African-Americans voters.  As we pay tribute to these courageous men, and to too many more recent victims of hate, Congress has an opportunity to send an important message.  By passing this hate crimes legislation, we can act to prevent future hate crimes and civil rights abuses.

I welcome back our Attorney General and thank him for appearing today.  We also welcome Janet Langhart Cohen, the wife of former Secretary of Defense, former Senator and former member of this Committee, William Cohen.  Her husband was at the Holocaust Museum at the time of the shooting and knew Stephen Johns, the security guard who was killed.  Ms. Langhart is well-respected by Republicans and Democrats alike, as are our other witnesses, and I look forward to hearing from her, Michael Lieberman of the Anti-Defamation League, Dr. Mark Achtemeier and our other witnesses today.

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